Did Bashar al-Assad pay for this photo?

 

The New York Times has an article today about the $5,000 monthly retainer that the Assad regime paid to a public relations firm to broker the fawning and ill-fated Vogue profile of Asma al-Assad — called, laughably, “A Rose in the Desert” — that appeared in March 2011 just as civil war was breaking out out in Syria.  Vogue has since scrubbed the profile from its website but it does not read well in retrospect:

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic–the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-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.

Well, OK.  The Times quotes Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who once worked for a charity sponsored by Mrs. Assad, sums up the appeal the Assads had for some news outlets as: “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”  Or as the author of the profile, French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck, explained, Asmaa al-Assad is “extremely thin and very well-dressed, and therefore qualified to be in Vogue.”

What I find most suspect here is not the media-buying PR retainer as the underlying premise of the Vogue piece, which is that the Assads talk like us and dress like us so therefore they must be decent leaders.  This calls to mind the infamous profile of King Abdullah II of Jordan by Jeffrey Goldberg that appeared in the Times magazine in 2000, not long after Abdullah had ascended to the throne.  In it, Goldberg — who really ought to know better — seems to suggest that a familiary with American TV sitcoms is a good leading indicator of progressive politics:

‘You get this in a lot of bureaucracies, all over the place,” [King Abdullah II] says. ”I was just watching ‘Dharma and Greg’ the other day and she was being sent up and down somewhere — I think it was a registrar’s office, and she wanted to solve a problem on a street she lived on. It’s not unique.”

” ‘Dharma and Greg’?”

”It’s a sitcom,” he explains.

Utterly casual, disdainful of sycophancy and steeped in American culture, King Abdullah II is one of the Three Kings of what optimists might call the new Arab progressivism. Like King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the emir of Bahrain, Sheik Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, he ascended his country’s throne in 1999, promising economic reform and modernization. Like growing numbers of young Arab technocrats, he is Western-educated. And like his peers, he is frustrated that the West’s power brokers haven’t yet paid sufficient attention.

”We’re at a very interesting crossroads,” the king says. ”Madeleine Albright asks, ‘What can we expect of the younger generation in the Middle East?’ And I always return by saying: ‘Well, the younger generation was all educated in the West. We understand the West, so all of us are saying, what can we expect from the West?’ ”

What, indeed.  Never mind that in the years since then those Three Kings have hardly been at the vanguard of progress in the Arab world.  But apparently the answer to what Arabs can expect from the West is vanity: the vanity to imagine that the more Western an Arab leader seems the better he is likely to govern.  You could call this the ‘Tom Friedman bias’ because it is the subtext of almost every piece he files on the non-Western world.  The Assads understood this bias too and Vogue redeemed their faith.

But if people want to explore influence buying by the Assad regime, why don’t they investigate who paid for the photograph above?  It shows then-President Nicolas Sarkozy greeting Bashar al-Assad at the Bastille Day celebrations in 2008.  Political life is full of grip-and-grin photo ops that prove embarrassing after the fact but this one was more deliberate than that: the invitation Sarkozy extended to Assad to attend the Bastille Day celebration (ostensibly tied to a Mediterranean Union event) was a rogue effort to bring Assad in from the cold at a time when most Western leaders were shunning in him because of Syria’s complicity in the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.  France has always liked to think of Lebanon as a French client state — it is a former French colony, carved out of Greater Syria to create a Christian-majority state in the Middle East — and Hariri was a close personal friend of the former president Jacques Chirac so Sarkozy was bucking a lot of history to invite Assad to Bastille Day.  There has never been an adequate explanation as to why he did it.  What we do know is that French presidential campaigns rely on foreign dictators for a substantial amount of off-the-books funding: I have written before about the French submarine scandal with Pakistan and the allegations that Gaddafi gave Sarkozy 50m€ for his campaign, which bought a fair amount of influence.  So, what did Bashar al-Assad do to earn the Bastille Day invitation?

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