You have to hand it to Muamar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. They and their minions have an unerring instinct for finding what Lenin called “useful idiots,” and they know their prey.
For a measly quarter of a million a month, the Libyan tyrant hired the Monitor Group, founded by a group of faculty members at Harvard, to shill on his behalf, and in the process he managed to snare not only the London School of Economics but also – as I pointed out last week – an American political scientist inclined to think he is “an internationally renowned political theorist,” who has even now not yet figured out that he and a host of others were snookered by Gadaffi’s well-heeled and charming son Saif.
Gadaffi’s Syrian counterpart is evidently up to similar tricks, and I would not be surprised to learn that he, too, recently made an appearance among the clients of the Monitor Group. In an article which that “internationally renowned political theorist” wrote for The Huffington Post in early February, he not only told his readers that Gaddafi “rules by means other than fear” and is “not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested.” He also fawned on “former ophthalmologist Bashar Assad and his British-educated, banking career wife Asma,” whom he describes as “relatively popular among Syrians with whom they mix regularly at restaurants and in the Sukh, where they wear blue jeans.” These two, he tells us, “are not passionate Baathists, but members of the Alawite minority and Syrian patriots who have experimented (ever so cautiously) with opening society, engaging young people, developing a pluralistic cultural legacy (through a new program with the Louvre).”
I quote this passage as I did in my earlier post – because you will find sentiments of a strikingly similar sort in an article published in this month’s Vogue. Entitled Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert, it begins by telling us, “Asma al-Assad, Syria’s dynamic first lady, is on a mission to create a beacon of culture and secularism in a powder-keg region – and to put a modern face on her husband’s regime.”
She is, you see, everything that Vogue readers admire: “glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the counture-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. Paris Match calls her ‘the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.’ She is the first lady of Syria.”
Now I will readily admit that Bashar al-Assad has an eye for the ladies. If we are to judge by the photographs taken by James Nachtwey for Vogue, we have to admit that Asma al-Assad is easy on the eye. “Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green.” You get the picture: a classy dame – well worthy of your admiration – what every woman wants to be, and what every man desires.
One has to wonder, nonetheless, just how much her husband’s minions paid Vogue to have Joan Juliet Buck write regarding Syria that “it’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings” and to remark that “Asma’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with a startling 97 percent of the vote.”
Of course, Ms. Buck is not stupid. She provides herself with ample cover. When she speaks of Syria as “the safest country in the Middle East,” she acknowledges that “the State Department’s Web site says, ‘the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors,” and she prefaces her discussion of Assad’s election with the observation that Syria’s “shadow zones are deep and dark.” But this literary maneuver is not only self-protective; it also serves to increase the Syrian tyranny’s allure. Who, after all, would not want to explore “shadow zones” that are, ahem, “deep and dark.”
I will not spoil all the fun. You can read the article for yourself. In it, you will earn about Asma’s education in computer science, her career at JP Morgan in London, the beginnings of her whirlwind romance with the son of the president of Syria, and their marriage nine years ago not long after he succeeded his father. You will be told about the visit of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and you will be taken on a tour of the apartment Asma shares with Bashar and their children. You will be told that “the household is run on wildly democratic principles.” It is all quite endearing.
But anyone who has read the book Strong Democracy by that “internationally renowned political theorist” or who paid attention to his description in The Huffington Post of Saif Gaddafi as a man who has written “two forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world,” in which he “has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that he would accept no office that wasn't subject to popular elections,” will find a mite bit familiar Buck’s claim in Vogue that the “central mission” undertaken by Syria’s 35-year-old first lady “is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls ‘active citizenship.’” “‘It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society’” Asma al-Assad reportedly told Buck. “’We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.’” In 2005, we are told,
she founded Massar, built around a series of discovery centers where children and young adults from five to 21 engage in creative, informal approaches to civic responsibility. Massar’s mobile Green Team has touched 200,000 kids across Syria since 2005. The organization is privately funded through donations. The Syria Trust for Development, formed in 2007, oversees Massar as well as her first NGO, the rural micro-credit association FIRDOS, and SHABAB, which exists to give young people business skills they need for the future.
And then there’s her cultural mission: “People tend to see Syria as artifacts and history,” she says. “For us it’s about the accumulation of cultures, traditions, values, customs. It’s the difference between hardware and software: the artifacts are the hardware, but the software makes all the difference—the customs and the spirit of openness. We have to make sure that we don’t lose that. . . . ” Here she gives an apologetic grin. “You have to excuse me, but I’m a banker—that brand essence.”
In short, Asma al-Assad is the Saif Gaddafi of Syria, and she is peddling to the American press the same snake oil that her Libyan counterpart sold to that gullible “internationally renowned political theorist” I wrote about last week. When I read of her achievements, I cannot help but suspect that the Syrian and Libyan tyrants are advised by the same public relations firm, and I wonder just how often the “internationally renowned political theorist” taken in by the debonair son of Muamar Gaddafi has been taken for a ride by the lovely bride Bashar al-Assad brought from London to Damascus.
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