Remember that disgraceful moment when Vogue published a sycophantic portrait of Asma al-Assad in early 2011, just before her husband began murdering his own people? Now the author, Joan Juliet Buck, has penned a piece for Newsweek explaining she wrote it. The title is not promising: “Mrs. Assad Duped Me.”
The broad outlines of the story are well known. The Assads hired a public relations firm, Brown Lloyd James, that organized Buck’s trip to Syria. There, she was accompanied by two company employees, one of them Sheherazad Jaafari, the daughter of Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Jaafari also helped set up Barbara Walters’ interview earlier this year with Bashar al-Assad, and apparently maintained ardent epistolary contact with the Syrian president.
When the article appeared in February 2011, it provoked nausea. Titled “A Rose in the Desert,” it was, essentially, a puff piece on the wife of a dictator. The Syrian uprising began shortly thereafter, and Vogue showed that it had even less courage than integrity by taking the article off its website. Yet unlike prisoners in Syria’s gulags, articles are not easily made to disappear. As Max Fischer of The Atlantic observed last year, the article survives online because it continues to be posted on the official site of the Syrian president.
Buck’s account is rather odd. The top part of her article is an effort to make it clear that she was no dupe for the Assads’ charms. She knew “the country’s more recent past was grim, violent, and secretive.” As she put it, “Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria was still oppressed, but the silence and fear were such that little of the oppression showed, apart from vast numbers of secret police, called Mukhabarat.”
Buck recounts the details of her visit to Syria and of being taken into the intimacy of the Assad family—even watching Bashar helping in the preparation of fondue. She tells us that her computer was tampered with in her hotel room, obviously by Syria’s security services. And she describes how Jaafari expressed displeasure when Buck chatted with the French ambassador in a hotel bar, after he had had taken the battery out of his cell phone and hers to prevent eavesdropping.
But then Buck does an abysmal job of explaining why someone well versed in the crimes of Assad’s rule could have written such a flattering article anyway, at the behest of a PR company no less. In fact she doesn’t really try. The article is inferior revisionism, an effort to recast her Syria trip and her own allegedly negative reactions to it, in the light of subsequent events, while placing the blame on Asma al-Assad for putting up a phony façade of compassion. “How could she stand by and do nothing while the Syrian regime ate its young?” Buck asks.
Yet Buck is just as hypocritical. There is much to say about Syria’s first lady, little of it generous, but Asma al-Assad basically fulfilled her end of the seedy bargain between Syria’s presidential family, a public relations firm, and a magazine—the tacit aim being to make the head of the Syrian criminal enterprise more presentable internationally. The moment Buck agreed to do the story, she knew very well what the end result would be. She had not been contracted to report on the barbarous history of the Palmyra prison, after all.
That Buck now wants to back out is reasonable. She is writing a memoir, and the Asma al-Assad profile did her career no good. But Buck’s story cannot erase the dodgy ethics in which she engaged. It may be par for the course for PR firms to drive glossy magazines in the direction of their clients, and it’s easy to say that the article on Asma was not political. But anything and everything written about the Assads, by touching on their power and reputation, is political.
Buck is more culpable than Barbara Walters, who, while she ingratiated herself with the Syrians to land an interview with Bashar al-Assad, also asked the president tough questions when given the opportunity. Buck wasn’t in Syria to ask tough questions and didn’t try doing so. Now, a year and a half later, she has decided to wipe her slate clean, yet offers up a contradiction of sorts: She knew how bad the Assads were before embarking on her project but was fooled by Syria’s first lady. Which one is it? Did Buck know, or did Asma al-Assad pull the wool over her eyes? She cannot have it both ways.
Let’s face it, for years the media gave Bashar al-Assad a free ride. Though he oversaw a repressive order and was strongly suspected of approving the assassination in February 2005 of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, the president was never held accountable. When Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama decided to normalize relations with Syria in the latter half of the last decade, there were plenty of influential people in the West, with access to powerful media outlets, supportive of this, wanting to believe in the sincerity of the onetime student of ophthalmology in London.
Meanwhile, those of us in Lebanon, and even more so those lonely voices in the Syrian opposition, who had first-hand knowledge of the Assad regime’s unrelenting awfulness were mostly ignored. Only when Bashar started slaughtering thousands of Syrian citizens did people wake up and realize that he was a killer, and a rather good one.
Buck is one of those latecomers, and her embarrassment is multiplied by the fact that she participated in a concerted effort to legitimize the killer. Her article is not a sincere expression of regret; it’s a calculated attempt to reinvent herself. Had Assad not faced a popular uprising, Buck would not have written a single word on her Syrian experience. That she is doing so now, after all the carnage, insults our intelligence.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.