Robin Wright knew Chris Stevens for many years: A week before his murder in Benghazi, we exchanged e-mails about my plans to visit Libya in a few weeks. A State Department travel warning last month cited increasing assassinations, car bombs and gunmen abducting foreigners. Clashes among militias “can erupt at any time or any place in the country,” it cautioned.
Yet Chris saw the potential over the peril. He was not among those declaring that the Arab Spring had only made the region worse. Quite the reverse. He understood that the Middle East is moving into the second phase of its traumatic transition as Arabs vie to define a new order.
So as the United States deployed gunships and drones this past week to track his killers, I started thinking about what Chris would have wanted the United States to do — about his death, the latest turmoil and in the years ahead. I suspect his message would have been: Waver not.
But he was less an advocate of U.S. influence than of U.S. enabling. Two days after his murder, Chris was supposed to inaugurate the first “American Space” in Libya. That’s why he went to Benghazi. The center would offer a library, computers with free Internet access, language classes and films.
In prepared remarks he never got to give, Chris was going to say, “An American Space is not part of the American Embassy. It is owned, operated, and staffed by our Libyan partners, while the United States provides materials, equipment, and speakers. An American Space is a living example of the kind of partnership between our two countries which we hope to inspire.”
In this fragile phase, as Libyans and other Arabs reclaim control of their lives from autocrats and colonial rule, Chris was pressing Washington to let the newly empowered take the lead.
He was famous for his “pleasant silences,” Feltman said. “He would sit there as if he had all the time in the world. Yet it was comfortable enough in ways that the interlocutor started talking more.”
After a brief visit to Benghazi in August 2011, Feltman went to say farewell to Ali Tarhouni, the NTC’s minister of oil and finance. Chris suggested that they all “hang out” a bit. During one of Chris’s silences, Tarhouni began to outline the rebels’ military plan for the takeover of Tripoli. Residents in several neighborhoods were going to rise up simultaneously, then militias from other areas would move into the capital. The NTC wanted Tripolitanians to feel ownership, not as if armed gangs from rival provinces were moving in. It all played out the next day, and Gaddafi fled the capital.
Two days after Chris died, President Obama vowed: “We are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice. . . . No act of terror will go unpunished.”
But Chris would almost certainly have urged his bosses to hold off on extraterritorial intervention.