Clinton Sends Envoy Stevens to Size Up Libyan Opposition

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. special envoy to Libyan opposition leaders has one overarching task: to figure out exactly who they are.

John Christopher Stevens, known as Chris, is a 20-year Arabic-speaking veteran of the State Department who has been a senior diplomat in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and had postings in Damascus, Cairo and other Middle Eastern locales.

Stevens, 50, will arrive in Benghazi, the unofficial opposition capital, by next week, according to an administration official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. His job will be to establish better links with the rebel leadership, the Interim Transitional National Council, and draw a clearer picture of the various tribal groups among the forces fighting Muammar Qaddafi.

“This is going to be a very challenging assignment,” said Robert Pelletreau, former ambassador to Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia. “You needed somebody with Chris’s experience and maturity on the one hand, and his broad knowledge of the Arab world.”

In testimony before Congress yesterday, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, supreme allied commander-Europe for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said that while opposition leaders appeared to be “responsible men and women” there also were “flickers in the intelligence” of potential ties to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

‘Locus of Opposition’

As charge d’affaires at the now-vacated U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Stevens described Qaddafi as a “notoriously mercurial” figure who avoids eye contact. “Alternatively, he can be an engaging and charming interlocutor,” Stevens wrote, in a cable prepared for the visit of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008.

He also researched eastern Libya’s “historical role as a locus of opposition,” detailing the unemployment and government mistreatment of the region that were driving young men to radicalism, including some who went to Iraq to fight U.S. forces.

Those cables and others were released by WikiLeaks group. The State Department refuses to comment on their content or veracity.

In 1996, Stevens worked for Pelletreau, who was assistant secretary for Near East affairs from 1994 to 1997. Stevens “has a good deal of cross-cultural comfort,” the former ambassador said.

Much to Learn

While U.S. officials are now in frequent contact with the Libyan opposition and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met twice with its special envoy, Mahmoud Jebril, there still is much to learn about them, said Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya now based in Washington due to security concerns.

The U.S. doesn’t “know everything about who we’re dealing with,” Cretz said in a March 25 briefing.

Stevens is already familiar with some opposition members from his posting in Tripoli, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.

While Cretz awaited confirmation as ambassador to Libya in 2008, Stevens was in Tripoli. He effectively ran the embassy there, said Alterman, who worked with Stevens at the State Department from 2000 to 2001.

Libya Experience

“He’s not the kind of person who goes out in the field and puts something together on the fly and sells it to the bosses back home,” Alterman said in a phone interview. “When you’re dealing with an uncertain opposition, you want someone who’s not going to send misleading signals, who’s going to be warm, but not sloppy. And given that he has experience in Libya, he seems to me to be a very good choice.”

David Mack, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, warned of potential pitfalls involved in trying to assess the political process of another country in transition. “When Jebril talks with the Secretary of State, you want to make sure that he is not just talking for himself,” Mack said.

Mack referred to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile politician who provided the U.S. with faulty information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. President George W. Bush based his decision to start the Iraq War in part on those claims.

“It’s up to our political leaders and diplomats to be discriminating and careful and sort out genuine motives from what people claim are their motives,” Mack said.

Ronald Bruce St John, an independent scholar and author of several books on Libya, said Stevens will be dealing with an opposition leadership populated by a mix of “former regime hacks” and a few émigrés.

Committed to Democracy?

“I have two questions: do they understand what democracy is, and are they really committed to democracy as we understand it in the West?” he said in a telephone interview from his home in New Mexico. Four decades of Qaddafi’s rule has left Libya without the basic civil-society organizations that support democracy, he said.

“Will he find democrats? Sure,” said Elliott Abrams, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, in an e-mail. “He will also find minor tyrants, Islamists, and of course tribal leaders whose main interest is the tribe, not the nation. As in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, the transition to democracy in Libya will be very difficult.”

News of Stevens’s imminent departure for Libya came as France named its own envoy to the rebels. Antoine Sivan, 53, who speaks Arabic and has worked in French embassies in Qatar and Iraq. He left France two days ago for Benghazi, according to Agence France Presse. France’s government was the first to recognize the council as Libya’s legitimate government.

‘Unflappable’ Personality

The State Department has sought to keep Stevens’ role low profile, refusing to release his official biography. Clinton, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows this week, mentioned him in passing only as an unnamed “young diplomat.”

Stevens, who hails from the San Francisco Bay area, served in the Peace Corps in Morocco. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1978 to 1982, according to a brief resume he posted on the Linked-In social-networking site. He studied law at the University of California’s Hastings College. In 2010, he received a master’s degree in national security studies from the National Defense University, based in Washington, D.C.

Joan Mower, the director of development and international media training at Voice of America, the government owned radio network, was in Stevens’s 1992 foreign-service class. Stevens “has an unflappable, but not nerdy personality” she said. “He listens to people. He’s the quintessential diplomat.”