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NOW

Recovering from the Asma attack

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.

  • bathsheba

    People with priviledge marry brats like themselves. They feel entitled .ASSSma,yes asssssma assad is no exception. i dont hate her, i disagree with her turning her head to genocide of her own race. she is from homs, come on aaasma,you are not a rose. you do have lots of thorns all the bleach in the world wont erase you being an arab. be proud of your heritage, and use your influence with your spoiled husband,i think hes really scared to death. any normal human would b.what do you do when u see those syrian babies murdered? ptobably put on your chanel sunglasses and say let them eat cake. get it ? you and the master butcher make saddam look like mother theresa. repent,pray God can stop you now. The way of a murderer is obvious.

    August 7, 2012

  • ali daoud

    @ Rasputin, just wait and see fellow, but make sure you don`t get bored waiting!

    August 7, 2012

  • John

    I am sure that there are plenty of Newsweek readers who will fall for Buck's mea culpa hook, line and sinker.

    August 6, 2012

  • Rasputin

    Asma should be worried about herself and her children with the regime crumbling all around her, I mean she must know what happened to Tzar Nicholas II and the rest of the Romanov family.

    August 6, 2012

  • 4G

    Michael,I'm curious if Vogue would be intrested in interviewing some of the innocent victims of the cruel al-Assad regime?I guess Were not glamorous enough.

    August 6, 2012

  • halim

    Michael, would you like to add something about James Nachtwey?

    August 5, 2012

  • Hassan Fawaz

    majd turns out most traitors are from hassan's party of the livibfakih and his bee2at al hadinat and their allies, leave Dearborn Michigan and come over you will find out. Besides Jamil Sayyed made an attempt to deport all Lebanese "traitors" to the Syrian occupation to Syrian jails but just ran out of time.

    August 5, 2012

  • Abbas Fawaz

    Guys, majd AKA Mohammad Fawaz lives in Dearborn Michigan and have been living there for years and hasn't been to this region since a long time so he doesn't know what's going on on the ground that's why he still spews the same stale rhetoric that is decades old and is no longer relevant.

    August 4, 2012

  • ali daoud

    22 SAF, yes, i disagreed with them when they didn`t finish off all those traitors back in May 7th or immediately after July war, that was a mistake by Mar 8.

    August 4, 2012

  • Word

    Asma is as witty and as beautiful as Marie Antoinette, humm whatever happened to her (I thought scratching my head)..

    August 4, 2012

  • saf

    Majd ... has there been any occasion that you disagreed with Mar 8, Hezb, Iran or Syrian regime? I am guessing any article that is negative towards these groups, you provide a better alternative to the story so that it becomes positive and "truthful"? Am I correct?

    August 4, 2012

  • مواطن قارئ

    She probably got paid a commission to do the article.

    August 4, 2012

  • usa1

    Michael Young takes Vogue way too seriously. Buck doens't know much about the Middle East--which is her defense, but I believe it because most Americans don't understand the Middle East. Blame for the article lies more with Vogue editors and no one has gone to the trouble to find out their names. This story is old and pointless. Move on Michael!

    August 3, 2012

  • 3g

    OMG!!! NOW I GET IT, IT'S SO CLEAR NOW! majd IS BASHAR, majd IS THE SOON TO BE THE LATE BASHAR!!!!

    August 3, 2012

  • ali daoud

    Joan Buck is desperate because she lost her job at Vogue, she is trying to win her job again, she is ready to lie thousand times in order to reach her goal, she is a proven liar either in her first article or in her second one, and i tend to believe her first one because i know Asma al Assad much more than she does.

    August 3, 2012

  • 4G

    Michael,I was like many people horrified when the story appeared in the media,and was disgusted with Joan Juliet Buck and Vogue indiscretion .Back then I wished the media and in particular Joan would report on the misery the Syrian regime inflicted on the innocent Lebanese people who disagreed and rejected there twisted,corrupt and criminal policies.

    August 3, 2012