10/08/13 Giving Air to Tyrants

by M. Zuhdi Jasser

 On September 7th former Congressman Dennis Kucinich helped Fox News to secure an interview with embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. More than a troubling demonstration of his continued closeness to the Assad regime, Kucinich’s efforts and the interview itself raise broader concerns about our free media helping to advance the propaganda of Arab dictators while their regimes slaughter civilians by the thousands.

Showcasing the Assad regime for anything other than the fiercest criticisms is certainly not new. In what was perhaps the most glamorous depiction of the Assad legacy thus far, Vogue Magazine praised the looks of Asma al-Assad and the mild manners and blue jeans of her husband Bashar while making no mention of how this “long limbed” couple oppresses, tortures and murders its civilians. Today, Asma al-Assad’s online curriculum vitae still leads with the photo used by Vogue to open the 2011 article. Later, Barbara Walters, in an extensive and gentle interview (complete with soft-focus lighting), gave Bashar al-Assad a full hour on prime time; while CNN invited Asma al-Assad to condemn what she called Israel’s “barbaric assaults on innocent civilians” and speak to the potential of Arab youth. In the past month, Assad and his benefactor Russian President Putin both conducted a media tour of The New York Times, PBS/CBS and now Fox News to press their ideological positions on the American people. Giving Putin and Assad space to further lie about the benefit of Assad signing the chemical weapons ban treaty is no different from giving Hitler a forum on American shores to proclaim that he will give up his gas chambers if we don’t invade on D-Day.

Of course, this is not Syria – and so the media is free to interview who they like, even if viewers find the content repugnant. But what are the real consequences?

The “charm offensive” strategy of media tours has been beneficial to tyrant Assad – and now his ally, Iran’s President Rouhani – is doing the same, knowing that Western elites will clamor to give him all the positive press he desires.

In just one short week, Secretary Kerry changed his narrative on Syria strikes – from a strident rebuke that punishes the Assad regime for using chemical weapons and killing 120,000 people to a protracted statement about intervention through “through peaceful means.”

They were able to do this because the Obama Administration has failed to articulate a Middle East strategy that embraces the most exceptional part of America – our commitment to the right of every human being to freedom. The media, with its soft-focus lens for tyrants, has only made this passivity more palatable to the American public.

There is no journalistic or ethical value in giving a ruthless tyrant the space to propagandize and rationalize his genocide of the Syrian people. The Syrian regime regularly posts his American media appearances on its social media channels, something he would not have done if the interviews were at all critical of his actions. Simply put, he uses his appearances in the American media as a marker of legitimacy.

Assad’s media tour allowed him to present himself as a victim of terrorists rather than as a key ally to the Iranian regime and backer of terrorist networks himself, and gave him the impact he needed to discredit American influence in the region. Most damaging to our own national security is the fact that by currying favor with the American public, Assad was able to convince many that he – a staunch ally of Hizbullah – is a voice of reason and liberty in the Middle East.

The debate about Syria needs to be refocused on the reality the Syrian people have faced for 45 years. This is not just a 2.5 year revolution. This is not just about 1,400 people being killed with chemical weapons and 120,000 people being killed with conventional weapons.

This is a revolution sparked by 15 million people clamoring for the right to be free. This is a revolution sparked by the masses of 10-15 million Syrian citizens clamoring for the right to be free. Tell me whose side should the United States be on  – certainly not Vladimir Putin’s, Bashar Al-Assad’s, Hassan Rouhani’s, or Hassan Nasrallah’s?

Zuhdi Jasser is the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and the author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith.