Slain ambassador with a deep understanding of Arab culture


J CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: J CHRISTOPHER STEVENS arrived in Benghazi, Libya, in April 2011 aboard a Greek cargo ship carrying a dozen US diplomats and guards and enough vehicles and equipment to set up a diplomatic beachhead in the middle of an armed rebellion.

Even then, the polarised views of the Nato-led intervention were on display, as were the dangers of diplomacy in a turbulent nation. The rebels fighting Muammar Gadafy had hoisted US, British and French flags in the plaza in Benghazi they renamed Freedom Square, Stevens often recalled, but a car bomb later exploded in the parking lot of the hotel where he and his team had settled.

That forced him to move into the villa in Benghazi where, more than a year later, he and three other state department employees were killed last Tuesday during a prolonged assault on the consulate there, which he was visiting to inaugurate a new cultural centre as part of his efforts to deepen ties in a new Libya.

Stevens (52) became the first US ambassador killed in an attack while on duty since Adolph Dubs was kidnapped and killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1979.

“It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi,” said US president Barack Obama in the White House’s Rose Garden on Wednesday, “because it is a city that he helped to save.”

Stevens, a fluent Arabic speaker, knew better than most diplomats in the US foreign service the opportunities and travails facing Libya after the fall of Gadafy, and was undaunted.

“The image of the striped-pants ambassador who goes to cocktail parties and steeples his hands – that was not Chris Stevens,” said Jeffrey D Feltman, a former assistant secretary of state and now undersecretary general at the United Nations, who worked closely with him.

After having served as the deputy ambassador during Gadafy’s rule, Stevens became the Obama administration’s main interlocutor to the rebels based in Benghazi who ultimately overthrew Gadafy while Nato conducted airstrikes. Obama rewarded him with the nomination to become the first ambassador in a post-Gadafy Libya, and he arrived in May with indefatigable enthusiasm for the country’s prospects as a free, western-friendly democracy.

“The whole atmosphere has changed for the better,” he wrote in an email to friends and family in July. “People smile more . . . Americans, French and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let’s hope it lasts.”

For those who knew him, Stevens was an easy-going, accessible, candid and at times irreverent diplomat, with a deep understanding of Arab culture and politics that began when he was a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

Stevens, a native of California and graduate of University of California, Berkeley, joined the foreign service in 1991 after working as a trade lawyer. He spent much of his career in the Middle East, serving in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, where he focused on the Palestinian territories, and in state department offices overseeing regional policy.

In Syria in 2001 and 2002, he courted Iraqi exiles before the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government the following year. When the embassy in Damascus held his farewell party, he insisted on it being in a disco and invited all the Iraqis, who were fractious even then.

“This was probably the only time the Iraqis sat at one table, before or since,” said a state department diplomat who served with him.

He developed a reputation as a keen observer of Libya’s politics, and a patient listener who eagerly sought out activists, diplomats and journalists. He also kept up his routine of daily runs through goat farms, olive groves and vineyards nearby.

In his email to family and friends, he joked about the embassy’s July 4th party. “Somehow our clever staff located a Libyan band that specializes in 1980s soft rock,” he wrote, “so I felt very much at home.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the wall on Stevens’s Facebook page had turned into a memorial as friends posted photographs and eulogies.

Mervat Mhani, an activist for the Free Generation Movement in Libya, said that she could “no longer hold my head up high as a Libyan”.

J Christopher Stevens, born April 18th, 1960; died September 11th, 2012