Chris Stevens: US envoy to the Arab world

Thursday - 9/13/2012, 3:15am EDT

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - At the height of Libya's 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 a 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 Gadhafi's dictatorship for four decades flourished.

"It's especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save," President Barack 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 America's 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 Gadhafi's 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 Libya's disparate rebel and opposition groups into becoming the cohesive military and political force that the world would recognize as Libya's legitimate government. Colleagues and foreign officials recalled an impeccably 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 Libya's post-war challenges persisted, Stevens jumped at the opportunity earlier 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.

"It's a really exciting time for Libya," he said, and stressed that he would stay in touch. Libya's difficult transition to democracy needed to remain in the public consciousness and not simply disappear under the category of missions accomplished, he explained.

Fathi Baja, another former member of Libya's National Transitional Council, said he met with Stevens on Tuesday morning in Tripoli and saw the ambassador working on securing top Libyan officials with invitations to the next U.S. presidential inauguration. He also was trying to send more Libyan students to study in the U.S. and attract American business to the North African country, Baja said, part of an effort to strengthen U.S.-Libyan relations after they veered from badly damaged to nonexistent under Gadhafi.

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.

"His mother used to say he's got sand in his shoes," said Bob Commanday, 90, Stevens' stepfather of more than three decades.