When he was in London learning his profession, therefore, he made no waves; he lived modestly if comfortably; by all accounts he was a quiet, polite and careful doctor who was nice to his patients and respectful of his seniors. It is even probable that when he returned to Syria as heir-apparent he harboured genuinely reformist ideas and intentions.
But once he returned home, the logic of the situation was all against him. His father was a brutal, vicious mass murderer, the leader of a brutal, vicious, mass-murdering political movement. If Bashar had been a strong and brave man, he would have refused the poisoned chalice; but, having accepted it, he had to drain it to the dregs. Latin American gangsters give people a choice: plata o plomo, silver or lead, money or the bullet; for Bashar al-Assad, it was power or total extinction, not only for himself, but for his entire group.
His wife, the beautiful, educated, anglicised daughter of a successful Syrian physician exiled in London, was no more destined by nature for the role of dictator’s wife than he for that of dictator. Her metamorphosis from Mrs Assad to Eva Peron and then to Elena Ceausescu was by a process not altogether of her choosing. Furthermore, power not only corrupts but insulates from reality, both physical and moral. Bad actions come to be rationalised as necessary and then even as good.
At the same time, however, an apprehension that all is not well cannot be altogether avoided, however strong the forces of self-deception. So when I read that Assad had sent his wife the lyrics of a saccharine and sentimentally self-pitying country and western song, Blake Shelton’s God Gave Me You, I was not surprised: it rang entirely true to his psychology and his situation:
I’ve been a walking heartache,
I’ve made a mess of me,
The person that I’ve been lately
Ain’t who I wanna be.
Another of his favourites, apparently, is We Can’t Go Wrong by the Cover Girls, a song with the following lines:
There was a time when things were better than the way they are today,
But we forgot the vows we made and love got lost along the way.
Psychobabble, then, meets ruthlessness. The vague and imprecise confession that things were not supposed to turn out like this is certainly not intended as a confession that they turned out like this because of anything that I did, but to exculpate me from the suspicion, including my own, of being a bad man.
In other words, Bashar al-Assad reveals himself as a kind of Baathist Mr Blair, infinitely nastier because of the political traditions and situation of the country in which he finds himself. You can just hear him saying, Blairishly, “Surely you can’t think that I ordered the deaths of all those people, at least not unless I thought it was really necessary for the good of my country and the rest of humanity.”
This is all very sick, but it is not the pathology of the Middle East alone. It is what happens when the contemporary psychology of the Real-Me (the notion that, no matter what I do or how I behave, my inner goodness, my original virtue, remains intact), which since the 1960s has become so profoundly Western, intersects with a vile political tradition.
As for the Assads’ sumptuary expenditure, on such things as vases, chandeliers and jewellery, in the midst of their country’s increasing penury, there is nothing at all surprising about it. The Marquis de Custine, in his book on Russia in 1839, remarked on the tendency of despotisms to demand extreme sacrifices to bring forth trifles, but at least hereditary monarchs usually (not always, of course) had taste, and created monuments of lasting aesthetic value.
Modern dictators, who lack the legitimacy conferred by the hereditary principle even when they inherit their dictatorship, but rely instead on demotic and demagogic self-justifications, generally go for the most obvious kitsch. Whole books have been written on this subject; and Saddam Hussein, for example, made King Farouk look like Bernard Berenson or Kenneth Clark. It is a striking fact that not a single modern dictator, no matter the expenditure of money and effort, has left behind him a monument of any lasting aesthetic value, unlike many an incompetent and nincompoop monarch.
In short, dictators and their consorts behave, at least from the point of view of interior decoration and the other trappings of success, like footballers’ wives who have been elevated into a position in which the availability of money exerts no constraint on their fantasy of the good life. If you want to bathe in an ivory bath with platinum taps, then you just send out for one, even if it has to be to the uttermost ends of the earth (in practice, usually Paris or Harrods). And such is the wickedness of the human mind, that extreme luxury is the more enjoyable in proportion to the hardships of everyone else. Who wants to be a billionaire if everyone else is a billionaire?
Dictators often hoard for their own consumption what they deny to everyone else. Stalin, Hitler, Ceausescu, Kim Jong-Il, and others, loved the trashiest output of Hollywood, but only in the privacy of their own kitschy retreats. For Kim there was no greater luxury, or pleasure, than drinking a 1947 vintage while two million of his people were starving. No doubt his tastes became ever more rarefied as the condition of his country deteriorated.
But we have in the West no reason to be complacent. Let us consider the following exchange of emails, as reported in the Guardian:
“Check out this video on YouTube.”
“Hahahahahahaha, OMG!!! This is amazing!”
This could be any two young members of the British middle classes communicating with one another by email. In fact, it is Bashar al-Assad and his wife. Shallowness is international, and if I may be permitted a Sam Goldwyn paradox, getting deeper.