What Ambassador Chris Stevens would have wanted us to do in the Middle East
By Robin Wright,
The last time I saw Chris Stevens was in May, at his swearing-in ceremony for his first post as ambassador, in Libya. We’d been friends since he was a junior diplomat on the Iran desk, when we used to gab for hours about Tehran’s cryptic politics. We later met up in Mideast hot spots, from Syria and Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian territories. He always had funny tales about diplomatic mischief.
During an earlier tour in Tripoli, when Moammar Gaddafi was still in power, Chris once grabbed the camera off a Libyan intelligence goon on his tail, turned and, with a big smile, took the guy’s picture. Then he gave the camera back. The lanky Californian could be both charming and disarming, even as he made his point.
Chris was posted in Jerusalem during the second intifada, when Palestinians were blowing themselves up on Israeli buses and Israeli troops were raiding West Bank villages. In a bit of unorthodox public diplomacy, Chris and a junior officer went outdoors during a rare snowstorm and started lobbing snowballs at each other. Young Palestinians and Israeli border guards on opposite sides of the divide joined in. It broke the tension, at least temporarily.
His antics were misleading, however. Chris fast became one of America’s savviest envoys.
In April 2011, two months after the Libyan uprising erupted, he was dispatched on a cargo ferry from Malta to Benghazi to set up a U.S. liaison office to the rebels, working out of a hotel room. Colleagues dubbed him the expeditionary diplomat.
“He very quickly developed these amazing circles of contacts,” recalled Jeffrey D. Feltman, a former colleague and now an undersecretary at the United Nations.
More than anyone else, Stevens soon convinced Washington that the Transitional National Council (NTC) had the political bona fides to pick up the pieces after Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
His assessment has so far proved accurate. When Libyans went to the polls in July, the majority rejected hard-line Islamists as well as separatists. And many NTC officials won the popular vote.
Most colleagues thought Chris was daft for taking the ambassadorship, in what would be his third Libyan tour. But he was excited. “You’ve got to come out,” he told me. “It’s going to be fascinating. Wild, but fascinating.”
A week before his murder in Benghazi, we exchanged e-mails about my plans to visit Libya in a few weeks. A State Department travel warning last month cited increasing assassinations, car bombs and gunmen abducting foreigners. Clashes among militias “can erupt at any time or any place in the country,” it cautioned.
Yet Chris saw the potential over the peril. He was not among those declaring that the Arab Spring had only made the region worse. Quite the reverse. He understood that the Middle East is moving into the second phase of its traumatic transition as Arabs vie to define a new order.
So as the United States deployed gunships and drones this past week to track his killers, I started thinking about what Chris would have wanted the United States to do — about his death, the latest turmoil and in the years ahead. I suspect his message would have been: Waver not.
But he was less an advocate of U.S. influence than of U.S. enabling. Two days after his murder, Chris was supposed to inaugurate the first “American Space” in Libya. That’s why he went to Benghazi. The center would offer a library, computers with free Internet access, language classes and films.
In prepared remarks he never got to give, Chris was going to say, “An American Space is not part of the American Embassy. It is owned, operated, and staffed by our Libyan partners, while the United States provides materials, equipment, and speakers. An American Space is a living example of the kind of partnership between our two countries which we hope to inspire.”
In this fragile phase, as Libyans and other Arabs reclaim control of their lives from autocrats and colonial rule, Chris was pressing Washington to let the newly empowered take the lead.
He was famous for his “pleasant silences,” Feltman said. “He would sit there as if he had all the time in the world. Yet it was comfortable enough in ways that the interlocutor started talking more.”
After a brief visit to Benghazi in August 2011, Feltman went to say farewell to Ali Tarhouni, the NTC’s minister of oil and finance. Chris suggested that they all “hang out” a bit. During one of Chris’s silences, Tarhouni began to outline the rebels’ military plan for the takeover of Tripoli. Residents in several neighborhoods were going to rise up simultaneously, then militias from other areas would move into the capital. The NTC wanted Tripolitanians to feel ownership, not as if armed gangs from rival provinces were moving in. It all played out the next day, and Gaddafi fled the capital.
Two days after Chris died, President Obama vowed: “We are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. . . . No act of terror will go unpunished.”
But Chris would almost certainly have urged his bosses to hold off on extraterritorial intervention.
The trial of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the former ruler’s son and political heir, will be a pivotal test for Tripoli. A former lawyer, Chris was aware of the need for real justice under the government elected this year, rather than a repeat of Ghaddafi’s murder after rebels caught him trying to escape through a sewer pipe last year. But Chris understood the sensitivity about any U.S. attempt to help write a new Libyan constitution. He instead favored American assistance on the basics of the rule of law, such as training police on collecting credible evidence, judges on courtroom procedures, and prosecutors and defense lawyers on honoring the restrictions as well as the responsibilities of the law. He wanted Libya to become a model for a region prone to capricious justice.
Chris was already deep into the kind of nation-building projects that the United States often blew during a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as he helped develop plans to track missing parts of Libya’s deadly arsenal — including chemical and anti-aircraft weapons — he also pressed for the integration of some militias into a new Libyan military.
“He recognized that they were not all rag-tag ruffians running around with guns,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ray Maxwell. “A lot see themselves as patriotic.”
One of the most striking things about Chris was that he was not afraid of the future, as many may be after the latest attacks on U.S. targets. “I never understood why he never flinched,” his sister Anne Stevens e-mailed me the day he died. “I guess because he always had good relationships with people, he always came out okay.”
Chris would have been heartened by another demonstration in Benghazi the day after he died. A sign held high by a young Libyan in blue jeans declared, in big red letters, “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.”
Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”