WASHINGTON – At the height of Libyas civil war, Chris Stevens dashed off to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi by cargo boat to help shape an assortment of Libyan politicians and militias into the cohesive unit that would defeat Moammar Gadhafi. A year-and-a-half later, the 52-year-old ambassador died as Islamists attacked the U.S. Consulate in the same city.
Stevens death deprives the United States of someone widely regarded as one of the most effective American envoys to the Arab world. In his unfailingly polite and friendly manner, Stevens brokered tribal disputes and conducted U.S. outreach efforts in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh.
As a rising star in U.S. foreign policy, he cheerily returned to Libya four months ago, determined to see a democracy rise where Gadhafis dictatorship for four decades flourished.
Its especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save, President Obama said from the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday. With characteristic skill, courage and resolve he built partnerships with Libyan revolutionaries and helped them as they planned to build a new Libya.
Stevens was among four Americans who died Tuesday night after the consulate was attacked by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
A native of Northern California, he was dispatched to Benghazi in the midst of heavy fighting in April 2011, ferrying to the city on a Greek cargo ship to set up Americas central office for coordinating military strategy, financial assistance and political work with the Libyan opposition.
What he encountered was a largely lawless coast, threatened by Gadhafi offensives and short of funds for food, fuel and medicine. Security was a constant concern, he recounted in an August 2011 news conference, but he stressed that Gadhafis time was running out.
He was right. The war ended shortly after an angry mob killed Gadhafi in late October 2011, but not before Stevens played a critical role in coaxing Libyas disparate rebel and opposition groups into becoming the cohesive military and political force that the world would recognize as Libyas legitimate government. Colleagues and foreign officials recalled a polite and good-natured diplomat with an uncanny ability for winning friends.
He was loved by everybody, said Ahmed al-Abbar, a Libyan opposition leader during the revolution.
As Libyas post-war challenges persisted, Stevens jumped at the opportunity this year when Obama asked him to be the next U.S. ambassador in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. A couple of weeks before his departure, he was a guest of The Associated Press at the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner and spoke of his eagerness to get to work.
Its a really exciting time for Libya, he said, and stressed that he would stay in touch. Libyas difficult transition to democracy needed to remain in the public consciousness and not simply disappear under the category of missions accomplished, he explained.
Obama described Stevens as a role model to all who worked with him and to the young diplomats who aspire to walk in his footsteps.
He risked his life to stop a tyrant then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the State Department. The world needs more Chris Stevenses.
Obama and Clinton gathered with officials in a courtyard of the State Department, expressing their condolences and comforting those who worked closely with Stevens. The president could be seen telling several people he was sorry for their loss.
Stevens is the sixth U.S. ambassador to be killed on duty. The last was Adolph Dubs, in Afghanistan in 1979. While Stevens may have represented the next generation of so-called Arabists – diplomats steeped in the culture and traditions of the Muslim world – he was no pinstripe-suited bureaucrat cut of the Foggy Bottom stereotype.
He cherished field work, and disarmed colleagues with his adventurousness and humility even as his reputation rose.
Stevens came from a family of doctors and lawyers, but showed an early interest in foreign policy. At Piedmont High School near Oakland, Calif., he was editor of the school newspaper and was active in the Model U.N. club.
What a bore it is, waking up in the morning always the same person, said his quote in the 1978 high school yearbook. I wish I were unflinching and emphatic and had big eyebrows and a Message for the Age.
Following his father, Jan Stevens, he graduated from the University of California Berkeley in 1982. He then volunteered for the Peace Corps as an English teacher for two years in a remote village in Moroccos High Atlas Mountains – and quickly fell in love with this part of the world. Still, his next step was a law degree from the University of Californias Hastings College of Law in 1989 and employment as a trade attorney in Washington.
One day, said a former colleague recounting Stevens retelling of the story, the young lawyer put his head down at his desk and said to himself, I cant do this anymore. He decided then to apply for the Foreign Service, joining in 1991.
Stevens, who by now spoke French and some Arabic, had early postings in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel and Egypt – where he often camped in the Sinai Peninsula and regularly beat his superiors in tennis matches. He worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., from 2006 to 2007, where he presented himself as a political centrist in an office with several partisan conservatives.
In a YouTube video just before leaving for Libya to take up his latest post of ambassador, Stevens said he was thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights during the revolution. Im excited to return to Libya to continue the great work weve started, building a solid partnership between the United States and Libya to help you, the Libyan people, achieve your goals.