Vogue Defends Profile of Syrian First Lady

The leading fashion magazine talks through its rationale for running a flattering story on the wife of anti-American autocrat Bashar al-Assad

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November and December of 2010 were busy months for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He rebuffed international nuclear inspectors, rejected U.S. attempts at diplomatic engagement, stretched out peace talks with Israel (Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman accused him of undermining peace, calling Syria "the center of world terror"), ducked fallout from WikiLeaks revelations that he had attempted to arm Hezbollah with Scud missiles, and celebrated his tenth anniversary with first lady Asma al-Assad, whom he married only a few months after succeeding his father's 30-year rule and who herself spent those two final months of 2010 hosting a reporter from Vogue magazine, which on Friday published a glowing profile of her.

"Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic--the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She's a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement," opens the story, "Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert," which also appears in the March issue of Vogue magazine.

The article's fawning treatment of the Assad family and its portrayal of the regime as tolerant and peaceful has generated surprise and outrage in much of the Washington foreign policy community, which for years has viewed Syria as one of the most dangerous and oppressive rogue states in a region full of them, with the Bush administration dubbing it the fourth member of its "axis of evil." Bashar's Syria has invaded Lebanon, allied itself with Iran, aided such groups as Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and, for years, ferried insurgents and terrorists into Iraq, where they kill U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. But the worst behavior may be inside Syria's borders, where a half-century-old "emergency law" outlaws unofficial gatherings and abets the regular practice of beating, imprisoning, torturing, or killing political dissidents, human rights workers, and minorities.

I spoke with Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen, the story's editor, who said it was "more than a year" in the making. "We felt that a personal interview with Syria's first lady would hold strong interest for our readers," he said. "We thought we could open up that very closed world a very little bit." When I asked why they chose to dedicate so much space to praising the Assads without at least noting his brutal practices, he explained, "The piece was not meant in any way to be a referendum on the al-Assad regime. It was a profile of the first lady." He noted the country's difficult media restrictions and touted the article's passing reference to "shadow zones," saying, "we strived within those limitations to provide a balanced view of the first lady and her self-defined role as Syria's cultural ambassador."

But should every "thin, long-limbed" first lady enjoy such positive treatment in a magazine as prominent as Vogue, which claims an audience of 11.7 million readers? When asked whether Vogue would ever profile the wife of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, Knutsen didn't rule it out. "That's the kind of hypothetical that -- we really do that on a case-by-case basis." Fortunately, Kim is not believed to be currently married.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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