Yesterday the Washington Post inexplicably published a piece about the Vogue profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad—a profile published in March 2011. It’s inexplicable because it’s old news: Vogue removed the story, titled “A Rose in the Desert,” from its website long ago—and the fact that the glossy magazine was embarrassed by the timing is well known. Only a few weeks later Mrs. Assad’s charming husband went on a bloody rampage that, with about 10,000 dead so far, shows no signs of abating.
The Post piece, by Paul Farhi, does contain one revelation, however: The author of the profile, Joan Juliet Buck, is suffering from a deep psychological wound in the aftermath. According to the Post, she told NPR last week that “the children who appeared in the Vogue photos probably weren’t the Assads’ real children, but decoys planted for security purposes.”
Child decoys? What can Buck possibly be thinking? The Assads are paranoid, but as the hacked trove of emails released three months ago show, they’re also maniacally vain. Given the evidence of the last year, they’d much sooner slaughter the children of others than have them sit in for their little darlings. Besides, what does a man with a military, paramilitary, and terrorists at his bidding have to fear from Vogue readers? Maybe Buck, as the former editor of French Vogue, has some sort special insight regarding subscribers and knows that Arab intelligence services get information about their enemies from glossy Conde Nast titles. Otherwise, there can only be one explanation for Buck’s bizarre conjecture: the Assad regime makes people delusional.
Consider the premise of Vogue’s remorse: The article was ill timed and embarrassing because Assad would soon thereafter respond to the uprising with brutality. However, it should have been obvious to anyone with even a modest understanding of reality that the regime in Damascus was capable of rape, torture, and murder—all of which it openly practiced well before the uprising. The regime not only brutalized its domestic opponents for years, but also exported its violence to its neighbors—Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel—through its support of terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, the PKK, Hamas, and al Qaeda. Damascus International Airport served as a transport hub for foreign fighters making their way into Iraq to kill American troops. But apparently none of this mattered before Vogue dispatched Buck off to chronicle the glamour of the Assads.
Vogue was not alone: Even after the onslaught kicked into full gear, plenty of journalists wanted to meet with the first family of Syria. Bob Simon’s producer at 60 Minutes wrote that the show would be “be most honored to have President al Assad on our program”—honored, five months after Syrian streets started to run red with blood.
But it’s not just journalists who lose perspective when it comes to dealing with Syrian regime. It’s also U.S. policymakers and Middle East experts. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post offers an important corrective to her colleague Farhi’s assertion that Washington’s foreign policy community “had long regarded Syria as a regional troublemaker and leading violator of human rights.” Wrong, Rubin counters, the best and brightest were all on the Assad bandwagon.