By Jill Zabel
As I have watched AMC’s Breaking Bad and the events unfolding in Syria, I noticed that Walter White and Bashar al-Assad have a lot in common. These lead characters’ similarities speak to a wider point about how people can grow into roles that were not meant for them, become corrupted, and, over time, cross lines that would have been unthinkable at the beginning of their journeys. Perhaps more than anything else, the parallels described below urge us as U.S. foreign policy decision makers, analysts, and diplomats to understand that each individual—including heirs to authoritarian regimes—has the propensity for a spectrum of good and evil. U.S. policy interests are best served when we can bolster the capacity and willingness to do good when the United States confronts power transitions. (Note: Some spoilers are below. For those who are not familiar with the show and want to learn more without watching, see here.)
Tragedy forges a new path
Tragedy marks a critical turning point in people’s lives and can set them on a new life path. In all likelihood, Walter White would not have started cooking meth if he was not presented with a cancer diagnosis that endangered his ability to provide for his family. Similarly, Bashar al-Assad would likely have never come to power if not for the fatal car crash that killed his brother, Basil, who had been groomed as Hafez al-Assad’s heir. Both the fictional chemistry teacher and the real-life eye doctor did not anticipate the life they eventually came to live.
New beginnings can lead to innovations—for better or worse
When one is not planning to be a meth kingpin or the heir to a repressive regime governing over 22 million people but nevertheless transitions into these jobs, innovation is possible if not likely, even if one grows up a young Syrian prince. For White, that meant raising the bar on cooking meth and producing a purer product using his mad science skills that came to corner the life-destroying market. When al-Assad assumed power in 2000, many expected (hoped?) he would manage a transition to greater openness, reform, and freedoms in Syria. Many Syria watchers were optimistic that al-Assad would bring fresh ideas to the table as a more cosmopolitan, tech-savvy young leader. Bashar’s choice of a Western-raised and educated spouse raised hopes further for human rights and women’s equality among people who expected her to be a role model and champion for her countrywomen. While al- Assad did make some small strides toward reform in the beginning of his presidency, he did not move nearly far enough and received little inducement from the West to move further toward reform or away from Syria’s closest ally and negative influence, Iran.
“For the family”
While White’s claims that his meth empire was built for his family’s benefit became increasingly hollow over time, it is likely that al-Assad is actually concerned about his family, the successful if shadowy power and economic structures it built, and his co-religionists, the Alawites, more broadly. As this brilliant cartoon depiction shows, Syria’s regime is more of an oligarchy than a dictatorial regime per se, with the al-Assad family as the key protagonists in a family drama that often spills onto the national stage. Bashar al-Assad was almost certainly aware of his leadership shortcomings and, like many sons, is driven in part by a desire to not disappoint his father and uphold the house that Hafez built. As the now three-way Syrian civil war has intensified since protests in March 2011, sectarian and ethnic lines among Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, and Christian Syrians have thickened. As most powerful opposition groups are Sunni and al-Assad’s demise would shift power to Sunni Syrians, many non-Sunni minorities fear the outcome of al-Assad’s potential fall.
Voices of reason are silent or complicit
Neither Bashar al-Assad’s London-born wife, Asma Akhras, nor Walter White’s wife, Skyler White, have curbed their husbands’ (or their husbands’ allies) violent impulses. When the wheels start to come off the ethics bus, we should all hope that someone would help steer the person back toward a lawful existence, whether in Albuquerque or within international norms. Both White and al-Assad’s wives seem well-positioned to put the brakes on problematic behavior or at least would seem capable of getting out for the sake of their kids, if not their own moral compass.
As a law-abiding citizen, Skyler initially struggles with her husband’s immoral but lucrative involvement in drugs. Rather than reporting him or otherwise reining him in, she decides to launder the money and, at times, calls for more militant responses to entities that threaten the family and its business. Akhras, a mother of three who was born, raised, and educated in Britain and worked in international finance, might have used any influence she had to temper Syria’s response to peaceful protests. Instead, her response seems to be denial, dispassion, and silence, making her complicit in the regime's crimes. Despite being raised in the Western world, Akhras remains in Syria, unable to tear herself away from the system that she is (literally) wedded to and that makes her relatives rich. While we may hope time spent in the United States or other Western countries endow people with an appreciation for certain values, Asma Akhras shows that this is not always the case---or at the very least, they may not act on the values they learned.
Without their better halves or other measures to prevail to their better natures, White and al-Assad (and his cronies that are more dangerous than Bashar himself) go farther and farther down a destructive path and caused misery and murder in their wake. Both have crossed lines, including killing people and gravely harming children.
The ultimate fate of Bashar al-Assad and Walter White are an open question at this point, although both have managed to hang on—through pluck, the aid of “merciless butcher[s]” as allies, and brutality—through some challenging circumstances. As fans await the finale of Breaking Bad and policy makers and pundits anticipate some kind of response to Syria’s descent into chaos, especially after the August 23rd chemical weapons attack, many wonder what will happen to the fictional and real protagonists discussed here. Will they get away with their crimes? If not, who can bring them to justice? If they had a shred of conscience, perhaps the worst punishment for White and al-Assad would be to come to grips with the profound and irreparable damage that their actions have wrought. At this point, it does not seem like they do.
Given these parallels, what lessons can a U.S. foreign policy maker take away from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad breaking bad?
- Engage with new leaders (publicly or through back channels) to identify opportunities to thaw or otherwise improve relations.
- Understand that the first few months and years set the tone and trajectory for rule; early engagement is critical to enable good innovations such as human rights, press freedoms, expanded economic and educational opportunities, and new ties.
- Old habits and alliances often die hard, but positive and persistent engagement could have the potential for great dividends over time.
- Enhance and refine techniques that help analysts and policy makers understand behavioral attributes and use them constructively to induce positive end states.
- Develop a better understanding of a leader’s environment—inner circle, political machinations, etc.—and craft policies and overtures that account for the milieu in which new leaders find themselves.
Jill Zabel is an experienced international security analyst and regular WIIS blog contributor. Originally from Orlando, Florida, she has a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MA in International Security from Georgetown University.