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.
After securing what would be many journalists' dream -- time alone with Bashar al-Assad -- Vogue's
Joan Juliet Buck wrote only that he is, "A precise man who takes
photographs and talks lovingly about his first computer, he says he was
attracted to studying eye surgery 'because it's very precise, it's
almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood.'" Buck wrote
of Asma, "The 35-year-old first lady's central mission is to change the
mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage
in what she calls 'active citizenship.'" As for the Assad home life:
"The household is run on wildly democratic principles. 'We all vote on
what we want, and where,' [Asma] says."