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.

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."

Much of Vogue's article appears to familiarize the Assads in small but persistent ways; it notes, for example, Bashar's "startling" electoral victories but not that he was the only candidate. It lists one detail after another portraying Bashar and Asma al-Assad as fun, glamorous, American-style celebrities: trips to the Louvre, a story about the couple joking with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Asma's effort to give Syria a "brand essence," the fact that all three Assad children "go to a Montessori school," and countless references to Christianity. Though the Bashars are Muslim, like nine out of ten Syrians, the article meticulously associates them with Christianity, detailing their Christmas tree, their love of Christmas music, Asma's visit to a Catholic orphanage, and a Christian children's concert that is said to bring the audience to tears. The article ends with Bashar ringing a Christmas bell, declaring, "This is how you can have peace!"

Knutsen disagrees with charges that the magazine is implicitly endorsing the Assads or positioning them as friendly and pro-Western. "For our readers it's a way of opening a window into this world a little bit," he said. When I asked why the magazine would praise a hereditary dictator whose security forces torture dissidents as "wildly democratic," he answered of the Assads, "I think the way they portray themselves [in the story] is probably pretty accurate."

Neither Bashar's supposed love of democracy or Asma's mission to promote "active citizenship" have been on display in recent weeks, when Syria has brutally and effectively cracked down on the same sort of pro-democracy protests that have been unsettling the broader region. "The timing may seem odd, but that's only in hindsight," Knutsen said of the North African and Middle Eastern protests that have spread to Syria. "By the time the article was closed and shipped, in mid January, we had only just learned about events in Tunisia," where protests first began.

I asked Knutsen if he thinks Bashar al-Assad is a despot. He sighed, "Yeah. I would call him an autocrat." When I pressed him on the point, he said, "there's no freedom there," adding, "it's not as secular as we might like."

Photo by J.J. Gould/The Atlantic