Ambassador Christopher Stevens was a conscientious, well-informed, and engaging diplomat who served our country exceptionally well. He earned the right to be called a hero. His status as a hero involves much more than the circumstances of his tragic death last month in Benghazi.
Significantly, Stevens’ heroic status stems from his exceptional good works on behalf of our country and the personal risks that he knowingly took when performing his duties. Fluent in both Arabic and French, the ambassador had an uncanny ability to translate for other cultures the ideals, principles and beliefs that underlie our form of constitutional democracy.
The exceptional characteristics of Stevens, the work he performed and the risks he took in service to our country stand in stark contrast to the recent attempts to exploit the ambassador’s death for political purposes. For those who knew and admired Stevens, these efforts are inappropriate and disheartening, even borderline offensive. The time has come for those who knew the ambassador and understand his legacy to speak out and plea that these efforts stop.
I was initially reluctant to speak out publicly because my feelings on this tragedy are personal, and I believed that silence was the best course of action to take out of deference to and respect for the late ambassador’s family. Having lost a daughter several years ago, I am all too familiar with the pain and sorrow that comes with the loss of a child. But the recent willingness of the ambassador’s parents to speak up has prompted me to write my own concurrence to their plea that the political exploitation of their son’s death end.
I met Stevens last June when I was in Libya and Tunisia to promote the concept of the rule of law and fair elections in Libya, and to participate in a Tunisian symposium on the drafting of constitutions. The program was sponsored by the Rule of Law Initiative of the American Bar Association. My efforts in Libya focused on assisting lawyers and civil-society advocates who were working to ensure that that country’s July elections would be as open and fair as possible. The visit was my latest in a series of trips abroad focusing on the rule of law and America’s special form of constitutional democracy.
My foreign visits almost always include a meeting at the U.S Embassy. The general purpose of these meetings is to inform the State Department why a Minnesota Supreme Court justice is in the country and to assure the embassy that I was in the country to promote, not disrupt, the goals of U.S. foreign policy. Most often these meetings started out stiff and formal; but my meeting at the embassy in Tripoli was different for one reason: Ambassador Stevens.
Engaged, curious, disarmingly candid
I sensed this difference when the ambassador first entered the room and greeted each of us with a broad smile. Not only did he warmly greet our delegation, he almost immediately launched into a substantive discussion about our efforts in Libya. The whole time he was charming, full of energy, engaged, curious, disarmingly candid, and, most important, he quickly demonstrated how well informed he was about the current political situation in Libya.
Stevens was optimistic about Libya’s future and passionate about the efforts being made to establish a constitutional democracy. From the way he talked it was obvious that he had genuine affection and respect for the Libyan people. He expressed his belief that Libya had as good a chance to succeed as any of the “Arab Spring” countries. I particularly remember his description of the courage and dedication he witnessed firsthand as the Libyan people sought to rid themselves of the tyrannical rule of Col. Muammar Gadhafi. He knew he was doing the right thing in Libya and believed that he could make a difference for the Libyan people in particular and the citizens of the Arab world in general.
Stevens was especially known for his “pleasant silences,” when he would listen intently to what a compatriot had to say. I was the beneficiary of several of Stevens’ pleasant silences when I responded to his questions about my visit, recent legal developments in U.S. law (Stevens was a lawyer), the impact of some recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the direction in which the Supreme Court may be heading, and the type of issues that come before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
We also talked about the need to better inform the American people about their own government and America’s role in the world. I recall with special delight Steven’s reaction when I spontaneously drew two of his embassy staff members into a physical, basketball-oriented demonstration on how our system of separation of powers works. It is a demonstration that I frequently use with school students. The ambassador laughed out loud as the three of us, the two staff members and I each representing one of the branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — jostled and elbowed each other as we sought to position ourselves to best get an imaginary rebound of a basketball labeled “power.” But more importantly, he fully understood how this basketball analogy demonstrated that even though our form of government can appear at times to be inefficient, messy, and even a bit rough, our system of separation of powers is designed to protect the individual liberties enshrined in our Constitution.
We also discussed in some detail the security risks for Americans in Libya. This topic was very much on my mind because my family and friends thought that it was imprudent for me to go to Libya given the repeated warnings about heavily armed militias and individuals, assassinations and kidnappings. Tripoli was generally considered to be safer than Benghazi and Derna. It was clear that Libya was a very dangerous place and that the local police could often only provide nominal security.
Fully aware of the dangers
The ambassador was fully aware of these dangers and the risks assumed by any American in Libya. Precautions could be taken to reduce the risks, but there was no way the danger could be eliminated. One thing soon became evident to me: My profile in Libya was comparatively low and my exposure to the risk of danger was short term. On the other hand, the ambassador’s profile was about as high as it could be for any American in Libya. Moreover, his tenure in Libya, unlike mine, was for the long term. Despite the known risks, Stevens liked being out among the people. He believed that his constant contact with a broad spectrum of people made him a more effective advocate for democratic reforms. But Stevens’ success in promoting democracy also made him an enemy of some radical elements of Libyan society. Unquestionably, Stevens was constantly exposed to considerable danger, something that he both acknowledged and accepted.
As we parted, we agreed that would be beneficial if I returned to Libya after the elections, possibly as early as this fall. We both expressed how much we looked forward to our next meeting. I remember how proud and pleased I was that Christopher Stevens was our country’s most prominent face in Libya.
The foregoing experience, background, and knowledge provide the context for my dismay and irritation with the attempts to exploit Stevens’ death for perceived political advantage. The pain and sorrow from my own experience of losing a child make me certain that as Stevens’ parents mourn the death of their son, the current attempts to politically exploit his death must have elevated the pain of their personal loss to a nearly intolerable level. For the ambassador’s family and friends it must make the pain all the more unbearable for them to know that some of the loudest voices crying out are the same voices that worked to limit the adequate funding of our foreign service – funding that might have been available for additional security for the ambassador when he was in Libya.
The stark reality is that present-day Libya is a very dangerous place. Benghazi is particularly dangerous. Benghazi was the crucible for the revolt against Gadhafi. It is a city that Stevens helped to save from that tyrant’s troops. It is a city that Stevens had a special affinity for, and it was a city that contained many of his friends – friends who Stevens believed could protect him from danger.
As I end my comments I have some suggestions for those who seek to exploit the ambassador’s death for political purposes. First of all they should heed the admonitions of Stevens’ parents: The attempts to “place blame are unproductive” and the blatant attempts to exploit the ambassadors death are “abhorrent.” We all would be better off if we returned to the bygone ethic of past leaders who sought to unite our nation on issues of foreign policy, not divide it. I hope, if nothing else, these tragic events make those exploitative voices reconsider their efforts to diminish the amount of resources our country commits to its foreign service.
Picking up on a Brokaw, Petraeus idea
Perhaps it is time to consider in earnest an idea discussed by Tom Brokaw and Gen. David Petraeus. They agreed that something more subtle and nuanced than military boots on the ground may be required to win over local communities. Brokaw suggested that we would be much better off in the long run if we deployed a diplomatic special forces populated by Americans who were well versed in the language, customs and culture of the local people. Further, these American representatives would be trained to clearly understand what is exceptional about America – our commitment to the rule of law, the equality and opportunities that this commitment brings, and the form of constitutional democracy we cherish, a form of governing that has allowed our country to “long endure.”
Perhaps an appropriate name for such a corps of diplomats who are specifically trained in the skills and dedicated to the qualities exhibited by Ambassador Christopher Stevens would be the Stevens Diplomatic Corps, and those who received this training could be called Stevens Diplomatic Scholars.
Stevens is an American hero, and we must take special care not to tarnish his legacy. Further, he is not only a hero in the United States, but in other countries as well. The Libyan ambassador to the U.S. recently said that Stevens was both a “friend and hero” to the Libyan people. Let Stevens’ reputation for tireless, fearless public service to his country be the legacy we speak of and honor. We should also honor the late ambassador by rejecting the voices of those who seek to turn his death into a vehicle to advance their own parochial purposes.
Justice Paul H. Anderson has been a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court since 1994. In addition to Libya and Tunisia, he has lectured on the U.S. judicial system and the rule of law in China (2), Russia, The Philippines, and El Salvador. He has hosted several groups of foreign judges and lawyers, most recently a delegation of five judges earlier this month.