The Two-Way
9:40 am
Wed September 12, 2012

Slain U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens Thrived On Tough Assignments

Originally published on Wed September 12, 2012 12:59 pm

Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was a very special diplomat. He made a career of going to difficult places and insisting that he witness tumultuous events firsthand.

His death is filled with bitter ironies. He spent much of his professional life in North Africa and loved being in Libya at such a crucial moment in the nation's history. He died on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, which led to ramped up security at U.S. diplomatic missions worldwide.

U.S. diplomats today often seem to be captives of their embassies. Many live and work behind high walls in fortified compounds, guarded by U.S. Marines who are often reinforced by a local security force. They venture out less and less, and the death of Stevens and three other Americans will only amplify this trend.

But Stevens, a 21-year veteran of the Foreign Service, never fully accepted these restrictions.

I witnessed this nearly a decade ago when Stevens was a political officer in Jerusalem. I was a reporter there at the time, and diplomats did not often venture into the West Bank as the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians raged. But Stevens was always eager to go and take the temperature for himself.

Over time, security concerns made such excursions rarer and rarer. Stevens was frustrated by the limitations there and was clearly thrilled when he was posted to Libya's capital, Tripoli, in 2007, a time when the U.S. was just beginning to re-establish diplomatic relations with a country that had been in the iron grip of Moammar Gadhafi for decades.

He spent two years there, which was the best possible preparation for what was about to come. When the uprising against Gadhafi began in the spring of 2011, Stevens was sent back to Libya. But this time he didn't go to Tripoli; instead, he became the U.S. envoy to the rebels, basing himself in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.

"It was difficult to get there at the time. There weren't any flights. So we came in by a Greek cargo ship and unloaded our gear and our cars and set up our office there," Stevens told State, the magazine of the State Department in its December 2011 issue. "My mandate was to go out and meet as many members of the [rebel] leadership as I could in the Transitional National Council."

This, combined with his earlier experience in Libya, allowed him to provide the kind of on-the-ground analysis that is often in short supply in such crises. He had credibility among the rebels and could help guide the U.S. government as it sought to figure out the complicated nature of a fast-moving revolt.

When Gadhafi's forces gained the momentum and began advancing toward Benghazi, President Obama agreed to the NATO air campaign that halted that offensive and allowed the rebels to regain the upper hand. Gadhafi fled Tripoli in August 2011 and was killed two months later.

Stevens, meanwhile, was named ambassador to Libya in May as the country struggled to build a new political system, restart its economy and create institutions almost from scratch. Stevens was widely respected for the time he had spent with the rebels during the uprising and his deep knowledge of a place that had largely been off-limits to Americans.

"I was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights," Stevens said in a video put out by the State Department shortly before he assumed his post as ambassador.

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Stevens joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

"I quickly grew to love this part of the world," Stevens said in the video.

He was thrilled that so many Libyans thought so highly of the United States and wanted to rebuild relations after their revolution.

"One of the things that impressed me when I was last in Libya was listening to the stories from the people who are old enough to have traveled and studied in the U.S. back in the days when we had closer relations. Those days are back," Stevens said.

He noted that 1,700 Libyans applied for Fulbright scholarships to study in the U.S. this year, more than any other country in the world.

Robin Wright, a former foreign correspondent now at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, offered this tribute to Stevens in a Facebook posting:

"He represented the very best of American diplomacy. He knew the streets, not just the elites. He had an infectious enthusiasm about the extraordinary history playing out across the Middle East, which he witnessed up close.

"He got it. He spoke the language and knew the culture. He never flinched even slightly about the dangers — whether serving in a country when Qaddafi was in power, or heading the U.S. office in Benghazi during Libya's uprising, or going back to become ambassador during a difficult transition. The United States has lost an incredible envoy. And I have lost a wonderful friend."

When the initial sketchy reports of his death in Benghazi began to appear, it didn't seem to make sense. He was the ambassador in the capital Tripoli, not Benghazi. Given his position, he would surely be well-protected wherever he was.

Many details of the attack are still not clear. But Stevens, 52, was never one to retreat into safety. He was one of four Americans killed Tuesday. Sean Smith, an information management officer and a 10-year veteran in the Foreign Service, also died. The other two Americans killed have not yet been identified.

Greg Myre is NPR's digital editor for international news. He was a reporter in Jerusalem from 1999 to 2007.

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