Vogue magazine missed the trend: Middle Eastern tyrants are out this season.
Maybe it takes a fashion dictator to know a fashionable dictator. How else to explain Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s decision this month to publish a 3,000-word paean to that “freshest and most magnetic of first ladies,” Syria’s Asma al-Assad?
That’s right. As Libyans braved fighter jets and machine-gun fire in their drive to overthrow the tyrant Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli, the queen of Condé Nast thought it was in good taste to feature the beautiful wife of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Apparently Vogue missed the trend: Dictators are out this season.
The Assad family—first Hafez and now his son Bashar—has ruled Syria since 1970. In that time, they’ve killed 20,000 Syrians to put down an uprising in Hama, provoked civil war in Lebanon and then occupied the country to “keep peace,” built a secret nuclear-weapons facility modeled on North Korea’s, and established Damascus as a hub for terrorists from Hezbollah to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All part of keeping their countrymen under foot for 40 years.
No matter. The only feet that seem to interest Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck are the manicured toes of the first lady. Mrs. Assad reveals a “flash of red soles,” we’re told, as she darts about with “energetic grace.”
The red soles are an allusion to the signature feature of Christian Louboutin designer heels—easily $700 a pair—that Mrs. Assad favors. (Mr. Louboutin, says Vogue, visits Damascus to buy silk brocade, and he owns an 11th-century palace in Aleppo.)
Mrs. Assad also sports Chanel sunglasses and travels in a Falcon 900 jet. But, we’re assured, she’s not the ostentatious sort: “Her style is not the couture-and-bling of Middle Eastern power but deliberate lack of adornment.” She once worked at J.P. Morgan, never breaks for lunch, and starts her day at 6 a.m.—all while raising three children! Just another 21st-century woman trying to do it all in style.
And her parenting? “The household is run on wildly democratic principles,” Vogue reports. “We all vote on what we want and where,” says Mrs. Assad of herself, her husband and their children.
For the people of Syria, not so much. Outside their home, the Assads believe in democracy the way Saddam Hussein did. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad won 97% of the vote. Vogue musters the gumption only to call this “startling.” In fact, it’s part of a political climate that’s one of the world’s worst—on par, says the watchdog group Freedom House, with those of North Korea, Burma and Saudi Arabia.
But none of those countries has Asma. “The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission,” we’re told, “is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls ‘active citizenship.’”
That’s just what 18-year-old high-school student Tal al-Mallouhi did with her blog, but it didn’t stop the Assad regime from arresting her in late 2009. Or from sentencing her, in a closed security court last month, to five years in prison for “espionage.”
Ms. Mallouhi goes unmentioned in Vogue. But readers get other crucial details: On Fridays, Bashar al-Assad is just an “off-duty president in jeans—tall, long-necked, blue-eyed.” He “talks lovingly about his first computer,” Vogue records, and he says that he studied ophthalmology “because it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood.”
So it’s the opposite of his Syria: murky and lawless, operating under emergency law since 1963, and wont to shed blood through its security forces and proxies like Hezbollah.
It’s hard to believe that a veteran journalist would so diminish these matters, but it seems that Ms. Buck’s aim was more public relations spin than reportage. As she reveals, her every move was watched by state security: “The first lady’s office has provided drivers, so I shop and see sights”—including, in a trip reminiscent of Eva Perón, an orphanage—”in a bubble of comfort and hospitality.”
In the past weeks, as people power has highlighted the illegitimacy and ruthlessness of the Middle East’s strongmen, various Western institutions have been shamed for their associations with them. There’s the London School of Economics, which accepted over $2 million from Libya’s ruling family, and experts like political theorist Benjamin Barber, who wrote that Gadhafi “is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat.”
When Syria’s dictator eventually falls—for the moment, protests against him have been successfully squelched by police—there will be a similar reckoning. Vogue has earned its place in that unfortunate roll call.
Ms. Weiss and Mr. Feith are assistant editorial features editors at The Journal