Syria’s charming offensive
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dictator who wants to be accepted by polite Western society should look for a charming, glamorous wife. That, at least, is what the world’s autocrats are learning from the example of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.
First, his wife, Asma al-Assad, was the subject of a glowing profile in the March issue of the U.S. edition of Vogue, which described this ‘‘rose in the desert’’ as ‘‘the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies’’ and reported on the ‘‘wildly democratic principles’’ that govern family life chez Assad. Now, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association has organized an event in Damascus, ‘‘under the patronage’’ of Mrs. Assad, who was scheduled to deliver a keynote address on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the day before the planned Harvard alumni event, security officers beat and detained a group of nonviolent demonstrators who gathered to call for the release of the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 political prisoners in the country.
On its Web site earlier this week, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association highlighted its connection with the dictator’s wife: ‘‘We are greatly honored to hold our Arab World Conference under the esteemed patronage of Her Excellency Mrs. Asma al-Assad, The First Lady of Syria, and are privileged that Her Excellency will deliver the conference’s keynote address. A thought-provoking, inspiring and tireless leader and advocate, the First Lady’s address will certainly be the highlight of our event.’’
The Web site was enthusiastic about Mrs. Assad’s role in Syrian national life and the connection between her work and that of her husband’s regime: ‘‘In her role as Syria’s first lady, Her Excellency Asma al-Assad applies her experience, energy and influence to her country’s social and cultural development. Her role reflects the significant economic, political and social change that is happening in Syria today. Asma al-Assad’s work supports that of President Bashar al-Assad by fostering the emergence of a robust, independent and self-sustaining civil society.’’
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in January, the Syrian authorities were among the worst violators of human rights in the world in 2010, torturing their opponents, imprisoning lawyers and violently repressing ethnic Kurds. Human Rights Watch said it had ‘‘credible reports that security agencies arbitrarily detained dissidents and criminal suspects, held them incommunicado.’’ It also said that those detained were subjected to ‘‘ill- treatment and torture.’’
Nadim Houry, the senior researcher on Syria and Lebanon for Human Rights Watch, said the prominent role for Mrs. Assad was ‘‘part of a general charm offensive.’’ He took particular issue with the Harvard Arab Alumni Association Web site’s reference to the first family’s support for independent civil society.
‘‘This is definitely crossing the line,’’ he said. ‘‘There is nothing independent and nothing self-sustaining about what the government is doing with civil society in Syria.’’
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was surprised that Syria — which effectively occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years, allied itself with Iran and aided groups like Hamas — had faced less scrutiny than other local dictatorships. ‘‘It is ironic that it has escaped, for the most part, criticism,’’ Dr. Haass said.
The Harvard Arab Alumni Association’s Web site includes a disclaimer describing itself as an independent, not-for-profit organization and stating: ‘‘Nothing that is published by the HAAA should be taken to represent the opinions or endorsement of Harvard University, the President and Fellows of Harvard College, or the Harvard Alumni Association.’’
According to the program, six people with Harvard affiliations were scheduled to speak at or moderate sessions at the daylong event, including the ‘‘Harvard Guest Address,’’ one of three keynote speeches, to be delivered by Jorge Dominguez, Harvard’s vice provost for international affairs.
In an e-mail, John Longbrake, a Harvard spokesman, said that the Harvard Arab Alumni Association was an independent organization but that ‘‘we are supportive of any alumni group that hosts a conference encouraging open dialogue and the exploration of ideas.’’
‘‘In his talk, Professor Dominguez will be highlighting Harvard’s engagement in the Arab world and discussing the value of freedom of inquiry and why liberty of the mind builds a democratic society,’’ Mr. Longbrake wrote.
The positive references to the Syrian government in a conference with Harvard involvement provoked intense debate among U.S. political scientists this week, with one e-mailing a colleague to say it was ‘‘shocking and disgusting.’’
But others said the event highlighted how hard it was to strike precisely the right balance between engaging authoritarian regimes and appearing to legitimize them.
‘‘To me, the real challenge is to navigate simultaneously working with governments and civil society,’’ said Anne- Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
Dr. Slaughter, who has been a dean and has just completed a stint as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, has been a strong advocate of a no-flight zone over Libya. However, she argued: ‘‘It can’t be either/or. You can’t just abandon the government and focus on the protesters. The world doesn’t work that way. The question is on which side of the line does this fall.’’
UPDATE: I had e-mailed Harvard Professor Jorge Dominguez on Wednesday asking for his thoughts on the Harvard Arab Alumni Association event, but my deadline passed before we had an opportunity to connect. Subsequently Professor Dominguez sent me the following e-mail outlining the subject of his keynote speech. What follows is not a response to my column since he has not yet had a chance to read it, but rather a bit of supplementary information.
“I spoke this morning on several themes. One is Harvard’s long engagement with the Arab world, which started with the teaching of the Arabic language sporadically since the late 17th century and regularly since an endowment for that purpose was established 75 years ago. Similarly, Harvard’s library resources in Arabic are approximately 270,000 volumes, which makes it the largest research university library collection in Arabic materials in the world. Moving closer to the present, I noted that we’ve increased the number of students from the Arab world from 47 to 96 over the past decade, and discussed how the University’s admissions and financial aid policies span the world. Harvard is the best university in the world for a poor person.
“I went on to discuss the meaning of education. Some examples are case-based student-focused learning of the type evident in case discussions in our professional schools (business, law, public policy). There is no right or wrong answer to such discussions but, rather, a vigorous analysis of varying approaches.
“Then, I illustrated my own understanding of a “liberal education” in terms of a course I teach, in which in each lecture I present an argument and deliver it as persuasively as I can, only to have it contradicted in subsequent lectures where the lecture is also delivered as persuasively as I can. I noted that in exams and papers I never ask for the “right” answer because each student must be able to formulate two answers. I described how competition between ideas and interpretation is a key to free inquiry in any society, and how the liberty of the mind, open to the world, is both the most effective way to learn about citizenship as well as professional life, and to construct a democratic society. Finally, I turned to research in various endeavors that Harvard faculty and students carry out in various parts of the Arab world.
“I closed by praising the Harvard Arab Alumni Association for bringing the discussion to a city in the Arab world, to build on the value of freedom of inquiry and competition between ideas and interpretations through the manner in which they built the conference program. There were several panelists per panel and a vigorous moderator who kept the dynamics going and prevented ossified speeches. Each session had a good chunk of time for many questions and comments where, of course, the recent developments across the Arab world were raised and addressed. The HAAA deserved praise, therefore, for bringing vigorous debate to a discussion in an Arab city about problems in the Arab world, presumably a value many of your readers may share as well.”