Bashar al-Assad’s secret weapon

Beauty compels us to do crazy things—like fall in love or leave our spouse or get plastic surgery. It has mystical powers that elevate distraction into an art, whereby beholders get lost on surfaces, lose all self-awareness and proceed to ignore or deny more deeply held truths. As the poet Jessica Hagedorn writes, “There is real beauty in my eyes when I lose my mind.” This does not apply only to the personal and private but also to politics.

As we’ve seen in the adulation of Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, beauty can even override morality.

Asma Al-Assad’s looks and fashion sense have bewitched the presses. Just ask Vogue, bastion of lifestyle journalism, about their March 2011 profile of her which portrayed the Syrian first family as glamorous, progressive and sane. Of course that was about the same time Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Asma’s husband, began what would become a now 15-month (and counting) slaughter of Syrian citizens (the death toll is estimated at 9,000). Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck was so wowed by Asma’s elegance, she inelegantly overlooked a country on the brink, comically describing Syria as “the safest country in the Middle East”.

Anna Wintour must not have been too happy then, when she had to retract the story (it was removed from their online archives, though Syrian PR czars have preserved it for posterity) and take responsibility for the magazine’s pitiful pandering:  “Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society,” Wintour wrote earlier this week. “Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue. The escalating atrocities in Syria are unconscionable and we deplore the actions of the Assad regime in the strongest possible terms.”

But the Vogue story made an indelible imprint. Borrowing their buffed up branding of the barbaric regime, the New York Times even found a way to glamorize what Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz called a genocide. “Syria’s Assads Turned to West for Glossy P.R.” read The Times’ June 10 headline. In the story, Asma was described as Bashar’s “beautiful British-born wife”, treating her desirability as objective fact. This is a beauty so magnificent, the Times affirmed, calling it so can not be subjective.

Vogue’s Buck caught a lot of flack for the profile headline “A Rose in the Desert”—which she later recanted on National Public Radio. During the interview, Buck explained: “Vogue is always on the lookout for good-looking first ladies because they’re a combination of power and beauty and elegance—that’s what Vogue is about. And here was this woman who had never given an interview, who was extremely thin and very well-dressed and therefore qualified to be in Vogue.” Buck described Al-Assad, who was born, raised and educated in Great Britain, where she later worked as an investment banker, as “intelligent” and “career-minded.” But more importantly, she told NPR, “she never ate”.

Asked if she regrets the story, Buck told NPR she was “horrified” that she had ever gone near the Assads. She called their denial of Syrian atrocities “disgusting”—but the damage has been done.

Anyone who read the Vogue profile or saw the Times’ glossy photo of the stylish Assads parading down a Paris street will now associate them with haute couture and the high life even as their crimes at home grow more sadistic.

Beauty can be so brutal.

In April, the German and British ambassadors sent a letter to Asma imploring her to “Stop your husband and his supporters…stop being a bystander,” with an attachment intercutting photos of the Syrian Queen with images of maimed and bloodied children. But to no avail.

“Of course it’s not going to have any effect,” Buck told NPR.

The poet Hagedorn might differ: “In Manila,” she writes in her collection Danger and Beauty, “the president’s wife dictates martial law with her thighs.”