By Paolo von Schirach
September 9, 2013
WASHINGTON – What is the point of airing an interview with Syrian President Bashar al Assad, right before a crucial congressional vote on launching a military strike against Syria? Sure, we know that our “fairness” obsessed culture insists on always presenting “both sides” of an issue. And so, interviewer Charlie Rose and the CBS network can say –with a straight face– that, now that America has heard Obama’s arguments for a military attack, it is only fair that we should also listen to what the accused has got say in his defense. After that, having listened to both sides, the US Congress can decide having gained all the necessary elements, and therefore with a better grasp of the issues.
Let’s hear it from “both sides”
I only wish it were so. In domestic politics on balance this is the correct approach. Yes, let’s hear from both sides –always. But the huge difference is that in domestic politics, while advocates of this or that policy can and will stretch and obfuscate the facts in order to advance their position, as a rule they cannot get away with outright lies, especially big ones. Or at least they know that, whatever they will say, this will be investigated, and their lies will be eventually exposed. In other words, a free society with multiple interest groups and free media create an environment in which facts still matter.
Autocrats say whatever they want
Well, none of this applies when interviewing an autocrat on his own turf. The autocrat can say whatever he wants. You do not expect Syrian state media to accuse him of telling lies, right? This being the case, what was Charlie Rose expecting? Was he hoping that Assad would finally “come clean’, admit his government responsibility for the August 21 chemical attacks against civilians and ask for forgiveness? I have no idea as to what CBS was trying to accomplish by giving free air time to a dictator responsible for horrible crimes.
Assad does not fit the profile
Thanks to this interview, the superficially informed American TV viewers will be pleasantly surprised. They were told about Syrian butchers and thugs who killed tens of thousands of women and children. Well, to begin with, Assad certainly does not fit the Hollywood profile of the mean looking, crazy dictator in military garb who shouts about death and destruction. On the contrary, they will watch a rather urbane looking, reasonably articulate Syrian President who until just a few years ago was practicing as an ophtalmologist in London. Hardly a Hitler-like profile. In this interview, this nice looking doctor, without any bluster or arrogance, calmly says he is innocent and that he knows nothing about chemical weapons. I am sure that this contrast between what a bloodthirsty dictator “should look like” and the soft-spoken Assad will make an impression. It will make many Americans think that “may be this affable guy is not all that bad”.
Nice looking doctor
Beyond the good PR packaging –something that will definitely work in Assad’s favor– if we look at the content of the interview, we know that in a Western setting outright lies articulated on TV by a democratically elected leader would be challenged. They would have consequences.
But this is not a Western setting. Here an US network gave Assad, free of charge, a great PR opportunity to speak directly to undecided American Congressmen, so that they may be convinced that this nice looking leader, trained as a doctor, may actually be telling the truth.
Legitimacy, free of charge
Once again, the net outcome of this interview is that a dictator is treated as a legitimate Head of State. The same dictator is offered a major media platform from which he countered the allegations made by the US Government. Didn’t it dawn on CBS management that, via this interview with Assad they were becoming an instrument of Syrian propaganda?
Beyond the hope to grab higher ratings through a sensational exclusive interview with a foreign leader right at the center of a major national security debate, there is nothing to be gained by treating tyrants (who lie as a matter of course) just as if they were elected democratic Heads of State whose words and actions are constantly monitored by a diverse civil society and free media. To give free air time to Assad, right before a difficult vote in the US Congress, was a bad idea.
Whatever you may think about the wisdom of any US military intervention against Syria, you just do not give “equal time” to autocrats who can lie, obfuscate and manipulate at will.