Tina Brown: Syria’s First Lady of Hell

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How did the worldly Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck come to present a rosy profile of the chic wife of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad just months before the Arab Spring? The piece was assigned at the end of 2010, but the uprisings spread—at a speed far faster than the magazine’s dinosaur deadlines. When it finally appeared in February 2011 (online) under the lethally embarrassing headline “A Rose in the Desert,” supplied by Vogue’s editors, Buck found herself in a media flak storm.

To Buck’s acute mortification, the “reform-minded” Asma al-Assad’s comments about her desire to encourage the Syrian people to engage in “active citizenship” were swiftly followed by her husband’s militias slaughtering those same citizens peacefully protesting in Daraa. Just months after Buck told Vogue readers that Mrs. Assad’s style is not “the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment,” the dictator’s wife was exchanging emails (later revealed by The Guardian) with a Paris jeweler for four turquoise and diamond necklaces. Holy moly. Buck suddenly found herself cast in the role of Spun Celebrity Journalist.

Some writers would want to bury this professional debacle. Vogue took that route, turning the lampooned piece into hot contraband by cravenly disappearing the link from its website. But in this issue of Newsweek, Buck admits with wry candor how she was duped by the Syrians and their PR machine.

She describes how after years of drinking the Vogue Kool-Aid she absorbed the ethos of the fashion runway, gulled into equating the Assads’ Westernized, cozy coupledom and seemingly enlightened social views with democratic values that extended to the political regime itself. There’s a great moment in her Newsweek account when she offers a telling glimpse of the real Mrs. Assad behind the photo ops. At one of the youth centers she opened, Asma upsets a group of teens trying their best to impress her by falsely announcing that the center could soon close due to a lack of funds. She did it, she told Buck, to get them out of their “comfort zone,” remarking “I do it all the time.” We suddenly see the casual cruelty of a despot’s wife.

Buck, of course, was by no means alone in buying the picture of reform promoted by the Assads. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March 2011 said to CBS’s Bob Schieffer: “There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he is a reformer.”

Hitler was underestimated by many—seen as an oddity. But in the case of the spawn of Middle Eastern dictators, the perception is reversed; they are embraced as being, somehow, “just like us.” Gaddafi’s second son, Saif, beguiled a lot of elite Western opinion-formers and journalists with his London-educated veneer and easy democratic declarations—until he realized his father’s regime was cracking (and with it his own wealth and status). He promptly threw himself behind tyranny, vowing to fight the rebels to the “last bullet.”

I don’t see many of Saif’s fawning, uppercrust dinner hosts admitting they were seduced and conned. It is to Buck’s credit that in this account of that notorious Vogue profile of Mrs. Assad, she does. And she has brought back a question I haven’t seen answered anywhere: Why do so many dictators, like Assad, cling so murderously to power, always unready to recognize when the game is up? “If he had been sane enough to withdraw to Qatar at the right time,” Buck says, “all the bloodshed would have been avoided.”

Surely Mrs. Assad, wherever she is, must sometimes gaze at the pictures of Muammar Gaddafi as he was dragged, bloody and disheveled, from a drainpipe, and find herself just a little out of her “comfort zone.”