The Devil and the Tyrant

Obama donor Anna Wintour forced to explain fawning Assad profile


The Guardian speculated Monday that Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue and a major fundraiser for President Obama, may be positioning herself for an ambassadorship in a potential second Obama term.

But Wintour is facing harsh coverage this week for her magazine’s 2011 efforts to glamorize Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In 2011, as Syrian security forces began murdering their own citizens, Vogue ran a swooning profile of the Syrian first lady, that has since been largely white-washed from the internet. The favorable coverage began after Asma al-Assad—“glamorous, young, and very chic” in the words of Vogue—hired London media relations firm Bell Pottinger in 2006. She contacted the firm after seeing other first ladies holding their own conferences.

The New York Times reports:

Bell Pottinger did not set up interviews for Mrs. Assad directly, but advised her on how to set up a communications office in Damascus to help shape her image. …

A few years later, positive articles began to appear. Paris Match called Mrs. Assad an “element of light in a country full of shadow zones” and the “eastern Diana.” French Elle counted her among the best-dressed women in world politics, and in 2009, The Huffington Post published an article and fashion slide show titled “Asma al-Assad: Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty.” …

None of the articles about Mrs. Assad struck a nerve quite like the 3,200-word March 2011 profile in Vogue titled “A Rose in the Desert.” In it, the writer, Joan Juliet Buck, called Mrs. Assad “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” …

This spring, the magazine removed the article from its Web site. On Sunday, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, issued a statement about the article saying, in part: “Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society. 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.”

Criticism of the coverage has been consistent since the Vogue piece was published. More than a year ago, for instance, Reuters global editor-at-large Chrystia Freeland blasted the Vogue profile, saying Wintour should be “embarrassed”:

FREELAND: Well, I was going to pick up on Jamie’s points about the travel bans. And I think that that is actually a really smart thing to talk about. Because this thing about these dictators, including Assad, is, you know, it’s lovely to be a dictator at home, but it’s even more fun if you can take your money and have prestige and status in the world. And an interesting thing about Assad and his whole family, especially his wife, that we had seen prior to these past few weeks, is a real effort to join the western community. We had that really terrible piece in ‘Vogue’ magazine, you know, a tough piece about Asma al-Assad, his wife, which talked about, and Anna Wintour, if you are watching, you should be really embarrassed about this, the wildly democratic principles of the Assad family. I mean, really dreadful.

Wintour has raised more than half a million dollars for President Obama. She is scheduled to attend two Obama fundraisers in Chicago and New York City this week.