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.