Syria, Vogue, and the Apologia of Joan Juliet Buck
by CLAUDIA ROSETT
August 2, 2012
It's now 17 months since Vogue published its cover-story paean to the first lady of Syria, "Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert." Readers were treated to a profile of Asma up close, "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," a dazzling paragon of understated style and philanthropic works, "on a mission to create a beacon of secularism and culture in a powder-keg region - and to put a modern face on her husband's regime." Asma, "glamorous, young and very chic," was featured playing with her kids, whipping up home-cooked fondue with her jeans-clad husband, "the off-duty president," and urging millions of Syrian youth to engage in "active citizenship."
That was February of 2011. The following month, Syrians began engaging in a lot more active citizenship than the Assad regime evidently had in mind, rising in rebellion against the dynastic tyranny in Damascus. For 16 months now, abetted by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Syrian regime has been fighting back - with heavy weapons, arrests, torture and butchery, mutilating and murdering even children. To date, an estimated 19,000 or more Syrians have been slaughtered, and the killing continues.
Now, at long last, comes a recantation of sorts from the author of Vogue‘s "Rose in the Desert," Joan Juliet Buck. To call it a full-throated apology would be inaccurate. Buck appears genuinely appalled by the carnage with which the Assad regime itself so swiftly and utterly discredited her labors to give it a fashion-plate human face. But her deeper sympathies seem reserved for herself, and her woefully bad luck that her Asma profile - which closed with President Bashar al-Assad, surrounded by singing children, ringing a peace bell - came out just before the monstrous character of the Assad regime hove into full view in the international headlines. (After a blitz of criticism last year, Vogue scrubbed the article from its web site, though you can still find a copy here.)
"Joan Juliet Buck: Mrs. Assad Duped Me" is the headline of Buck's new take on Asma al-Assad, published in the current edition of Newsweek, with an accompanying essay by Tina Brown on "Syria's First Lady of Hell: The real story behind the notorious interview."
In Buck's new version of her encounter with the Assads at home, we are now enjoined to see Buck as the victim. She tells us she set off, at the urging of her longtime editors at Vogue, to have a cultural adventure - after all, "when else would I get to see the ruins of Palmyra?" Besides, as she notes, she was taking a road to Damascus already trodden by such pioneers as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Senator John Kerry, Sting, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Francis Coppola; as well as a public relations firm hired by the Assads, Brown Lloyd James (which took care of her Syria visa).
But fate was cruel, and so were Buck's interlocutors. Buck now recounts that she was deceived by the Assads; that she expressed pre-publication misgivings which she says were ignored by Vogue; and when Vogue asked her not to talk about her piece, "I kept my word and did not speak to the press." Nonetheless, at the end of 2011 Vogue did not renew her contract. Apparently those were desperate times: "I was now free to react to the Syrian carnage with the only medium I had: Twitter."
Fascinating. But all this implies a set of priorities in which it was more important to pander to fashion (or at least to Vogue) than it was to tell the truth about a murderous tyranny.
And what Buck wrote, in her "Rose of the Desert" rhapsody on Asma, was not actually a piece about fashion, or culture. It was a high-profile paragon of political propaganda, presenting the Assad regime as open, glamorous, vibrant, led by a refreshingly democratic first family, shod by Christian Louboutin, and accessorized ever so tastefully with Syrian silk and Chanel. All this came on the heels of reports the previous year that Asma al-Assad had invited the Obamas to dignify the Assad regime with a U.S. presidential visit to Damascus - subject of a fawning article in 2010 on the Huffington Post (dwelling on the charms of Asma's "natural look and classic style"). Whether Asma's decision to host a writer from Vogue had anything to do with trying to entice the Obamas to Syria, we don't know. But Buck's coverage, long on enticements and lean on realities, would hardly have been a deterrent.
What about the use of the medieval torture rack in Syrian prisons, the terrorists bunking down in the capital, and the North Koreans testing missiles out back? In Buck's story for Vogue, such matters were either glossed over in passing (Syria, "a place without bombings, unrest or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are dark and deep") or figured as intriguing bric-a-brac ("There are souvenir Hezbollah ashtrays in the souk and you can spot the Hamas leadership racing through the bar of the Four Seasons.")
If Buck was unhappy, as she says she was, with Vogue's plans to run the piece, or with the headline Vogue gave it, she had options other than compliance and silence. She could have pulled the piece before it ran, or publicly recanted and apologized as soon as it came out. Instead, more than a year later, she now explains: "I didn't want to write this piece. But I always finished what I started."
By these lights, she was the victim. Faithful to Vogue, faithful to her own work ethic (and her desire to see the ruins of Palmyra). They made her do it!
And having produced that gusher of propaganda, having been outed and humiliated by subsequent events in Syria, she now presents a much revised tale that is first of all a defense of herself as a culture-loving dupe.
The truth was there to see all along. Plenty of it was right under her nose, though she chose to not share details of that with her readers until now - including in her apologia a raft of disturbing incidents and signs she witnessed in Syria, but omitted from her Vogue story last year. Beyond that, there has been abundant documentation available for years on the horrors of the Assad regime's assassinations, surveillance, torture, and terror techniques. Even before the violence that erupted into public view in the streets of Syria last year, there were reports on offer everywhere from Amnesty International to the State Department web site, to the testimony of Syrian defectors, the bomb craters in Lebanon, etc.
Credit Joan Juliet Buck that she has shed her infatuation with the "fun" first lady of Syria. But her current confessions, coming this late in the day, dwelling as they do on how she was "duped," seem less about setting the record straight on Syria than about distancing herself from responsibility for one of the most mortally embarrassing pieces of journalism produced in recent times.
In her own convoluted defense, Buck describes the rationale with which she took on the Syria assignment. "I was curious...Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject." She then delivers to her readers the bizarre journalistic creed: "I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself."
(P.S. - Until the rebellion began last year, and with brief exceptions such as the period of the Lebanese uprising against Syrian occupation in 2005, it was not that hard to see the ruins of Palmyra, in eastern Syria, even without a personal introduction to Asma al-Assad. All you had to do was pay for a visa, and spend a lot of time on a Syrian bus.)
Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.