John Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya killed trying to evacuate the U.S. consulate in Benghazi during an attack by Islamist protesters, was a firsthand witness to Libya’s painful transition to democracy who became one of its casualties. He was 52.
Known to friends, family and colleagues as Chris, the California native was a fluent Arabic-speaking, 21-year veteran of the State Department who had postings in Damascus, Cairo and other Middle Eastern locales before his first stint in Libya from 2007 to 2009.
“He found humor in the blackest of moments, always made time for a game of tennis, and enjoyed a gin and tonic at the end of a long day,” said Molly Phee, who joined the foreign service in the same class as Stevens and is deputy chief of mission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His friendship over 20 years “and kindness helped revive me when I felt low,” Phee said in an e-mail.
Stevens, the No. 2 diplomat in Tripoli when Muammar Qaddafi was still in power, went to Benghazi in 2011 as the eyes and ears for policy makers trying to gauge how to respond to the rebellion under way and avert a massacre in that city by Qaddafi forces. He was promoted to ambassador after the dictator was killed by rebels.
“Chris took his work seriously, but never himself,” Phee said. “He was an avid student of Islam and the Middle East, and consistently strove to build the proverbial bridge between our two cultures in the face of sometimes overwhelming antagonism and bitter misunderstanding.”
Ali Aujuali, Libya’s ambassador to the U.S., remembers meeting Stevens six years ago in Tripoli and thinking that the talented diplomat was going places. They formed a friendship over tennis games and breakfasts.
Stevens “was very enthusiastic” about the relationship between Libya and the U.S., Aujali told reporters yesterday in Washington. “He believed that the Americans should support the Libyan people to get their country back.”
Stevens’ killing on Sept. 11 came four months after he was sworn in and dispatched to the most challenging assignment of his career: navigating the aftermath of Qaddafi in a divided country with no constitution or rule of law. Tribal rivalries have pitted regional militias against one another, and weapons made their way across borders, falling into the hands of insurgents.
‘Passion for Service’
“I had the privilege of swearing in Chris for his post in Libya only a few months ago,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in a statement. “He spoke eloquently about his passion for service, for diplomacy and for the Libyan people.”
At a March 23 Senate hearing, Stevens spoke of the “tremendous goodwill for the United States in Libya now” and how “Libyans recognize the key role the United States played.”
That faith suffered a blow this week when an anti-Muslim film sparked an attack by armed protesters on the consulate in Benghazi and the U.S. embassy in Cairo. A clip of the disputed film aired on YouTube shows a fictional attack by Muslims on a Christian family followed by an account of the origins of Islam depicting Muhammad as a womanizer.
“It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi, because it is a city that he helped to save,” President Barack Obama said yesterday.
Senator Dick Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told reporters yesterday that Stevens had been in Benghazi “attempting to at least try to survey how things were going there” with security of the U.S. consulate.
“I feel Chris Stevens’ loss as a personal loss,” said Lugar. Stevens had worked on the Indiana senator’s staff for a year in 2006 on a State Department fellowship.
Ibrahim Dabbashi, the deputy Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, was visibly moved as he remembered Stevens as someone able to connect with Libyans from all walks of life.
“His personality was very simple,” Dabbashi, who was among the first Libyan officials to defect to the Qaddafi regime, told reporters. “He used to have the friends among high officials and simple Libyan people.”
During his tenure in Tripoli, Stevens had time to observe Qaddafi, who ruled Libya for more than four decades and was the first of the autocrats to be killed in the Arab Spring uprisings.
Stevens wrote a cable prepared for the historic visit to Libya of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008, where he described Qaddafi as a “notoriously mercurial” figure who avoids eye contact.
Born in a small town in Northern California, Stevens went to high school in Piedmont, near Oakland, according to a biography on the State Department’s website.
He earned an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982 and then taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from 1983 to 1985.
He received a law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1989 and served as an international trade lawyer before joining the Foreign Service in 1991. In 2010, he received a master’s degree in national security studies from the National War College in Washington.
The Peace Corps service was key, according to Clinton. That’s when, she said, Stevens “fell in love with the Middle East.”