When choosing a spouse, a dictator must take care. Eva Perón proved a great asset; Eva Braun, less so. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, educated at Wellesley, got grown men to weep when she spoke before a joint session of Congress in 1943 (good), but behind the scenes she was notably high-maintenance, insisting, for example, on silk sheets that had to be changed daily, or twice daily, if she had an afternoon nap (bad). Imelda Marcos started strong (good singer) and went downhill.
When she first became known to the world, Asma Al Assad, first lady of Syria, stood out for her efforts to put a twenty-first-century gloss on Middle Eastern dictatorship, a profession widely seen as hidebound and heavily mustachioed. She grew up in the London suburb of Acton and attended a ritzy all-girls school in town, with classmates like Imogen Lloyd Webber, daughter of Andrew. In the late ’90s, she put in a few years at Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan. When she married newly minted dictator Bashar Al Assad in 2001, she’d spent only her family vacations in Syria. Here was a 25-year-old pre-MBA banking analyst moving to Damascus, by choice, to be co-dictator.
For all we know, Asma might have left England with a reverence for parliamentary procedure, just like Kim Jong Un might have left Swiss boarding school with a reverence for the Enlightenment. But she always seemed more impressed by M&A pitch books. “It’s about finding the right balance between creating opportunity and managing risk,” Asma told The New York Times in 2005. “And that’s for me what Syria is about today, and that’s the transition process we’re going through.”
She spoke like this, with a London accent that sounded upscale but just short of posh, and she dressed in tasteful Chanel suits and Louboutin heels. Her handlers, notably the p.r. firm Brown Lloyd James, which also counted Muammar Qaddafi among its clients, seemed to feel it was media gold. Inevitably, Asma launched several Syrian “NGOs” (placing serious strain on the letters NG in that acronym) devoted to promoting “sustainable development,” “civil society,” and, yes, “microcredit.” Can’t forget microcredit.
As Asma told Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck in what would become a much-derided, but still revealing, profile, Syria just needed to retool itself for tomorrow—albeit with an appreciation for the country’s customs and historical artifacts. “The artifacts are the hardware,” she told Buck. “But the software makes all the difference, the customs and the spirit of openness. We have to make sure that we don’t lose that—you have to excuse me, but I’m a banker—that brand essence.”
Of course, these days, Syria’s brand essence has experienced some brand erosion, leaving it a rung or two below kidney brokerage or Fukushima produce. But it wasn’t great to begin with. Asma had to see that. Or she had to pretend she didn’t. That was always the mystery.
A decade ago, when I had a job inspecting factories as a “corporate social responsibility” consultant—Asma would have appreciated the term—I got to spend five days in Syria. It was a bustling, exciting place, and I loved the narrow streets and shops and vines of the Old City.
But you couldn’t miss that you were in a police state. Enormous portraits of Hafez and Bashar, father and son, hung on buildings all over, and the pair of them stared down at me from a building across from my window at Le Meridien Hotel. At one factory I visited, the lobby featured a bust of Hafez Al Assad that was nearly as tall as I was. At another, on the wall, hung a Bashar Al Assad–themed clock, with a large Bashar looking contemplatively into the distance.
Having lived for a year in China in the ’90s, I’d gotten a glimpse into life under a heavy-handed state with minimal rule of law, but Syria felt far more primitive. China was a place of cruelty and corruption but also vision, a place where personal greed could coexist with at least some plan for national progress. In Syria, the infrastructure was old and decrepit. Internet access was crummy and heavily censored. (I couldn’t get my Yahoo! e-mail.) The feeling in the air was one of stupid, backward-looking repression for no purpose other than to shut everyone up. I have forgotten what precisely prompted him to say it, but I remember my young translator whispering to me with intensity, “This government eats everything.”
This is what Asma had to close her eyes to. She must have realized early on that her dreams of bringing “transferable skills” (her words) from banking in Knightsbridge to governance in Mordor were unrealistic. So she kept up the business jargon and took solace in the minor power of royalty over commoner. When she drove with Buck for the Vogue article, she did it aggressively enough to get herself pulled over, so that, when she rolled down the window to smile at the cop, Buck could see his “eyes go from slits to saucers.” When visiting the Massar music center for kids, Asma got peeved by the lame “debate” put on by the children for her benefit and announced that the center was closing altogether, before telling the disconsolate gathering, “That wasn’t true. I just wanted to see how much you care about Massar.”
Today, with some 70,000 people killed in Syria’s civil war, many of them civilians targeted by the regime, even Asma’s loveliest paeans to “empowerment” and “human capital” won’t impress anyone anymore. Those who had said nice things about her now know to keep their distance. Her p.r. firm withdrew its services sometime in the summer of 2011, not long after coming up with a crisis-communications memo with the following advice: “In our view, the President needs to communicate more often and with more finely-tuned messaging and the First Lady needs to get in the game.” Now, here’s our bill.
Asma, for her part, went shopping. A year ago, when the fighting started to get really bad, a trove of Assad household e-mails got leaked to the public, revealing Asma’s arrangements to purchase a vase from Harrod’s and a fondue set from Amazon.
Let’s briefly consider her position, though. When you’re fearing for your life, shopping for mundane household goods like vases and fondue sets is a pretty natural form of escapism. And I have to admit, when I read Asma’s e-mails about a pair of non-matching nightstands, I shared vicariously in her irritation. Non-matching nightstands shipped across several time zones? Come on, Baker Furniture! Double check!
It’s easy to forget that Asma got to make one big choice in life, and she made it at age 25. After that, there was no turning back. It’s also easy to forget how much Asma was a child of her—our—age of foundations and “idea festivals.” She didn’t need to construct a worldview to justify her actions; she merely needed to plug into it.
The twentieth century was full of big ideas put into bad practice. Now, our elites have determined that this century will be one of small ideas put into best practices. Our salvation lies in micro-initiatives. ("Cash for Carrots Could Save Lives", is one of the headlines on the World Economic Forum home page.)
In the real world, grand ideologies still matter, and crooks cause a lot of problems. But in the world of idea festivals, grand ideologies are passé, and crooks don’t exist. Haiti’s problem is insufficient “capacity-building for public-sector performance,” not Haitian officials robbing the bejesus out of people. Master the jargon of business and nonprofits, and you don’t really have to do anything. We’re just happy to hear you’ve got a handle on it. No wonder Asma increasingly spoke and thought in Davosisms.
In one of her earliest interviews, Asma brushed off questions about her efforts to improve Syria. “Let the actions speak for themselves,” she said. A good thought. But words are easier.
T. A. Frank is editor of Zócalo Public Square in Los Angeles.