Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men: Remembering Ambassador Chris Stevens

In the December 2011 issue of the State Department magazine, State, the lead article begins, "By early April [2011], with Benghazi firmly in rebel hands, a dozen intrepid U.S. diplomats equipped with armored vehicles and communications gear set sail from Valletta, Malta and its ancient harbor fortress and cruised into the blue Mediterranean beyond the breakwater."

The Libya of April was "a dramatically changed place from the Libya of February." Among those 12 intrepid diplomats that April was special envoy Chris Stevens, sent by Secretary Clinton to ascertain the capabilities of those seeking to displace the ruthless, self-centered and self-dealing regime of Gaddafi.


Chris had joined me in my residence and at our embassy in Malta to learn what we knew as we outfitted his travel.

The magazine report said the Libya of April was far different from that of February. I was familiar with the Libya of February 2011, because on or about the 15th of the month, it fell to me, as the U.S. ambassador in the closest European nation, the Republic of Malta, to rescue roughly 100 U.S. personnel who were caught behind the shooting lines.

"Get them out," instructed the secretary.

"How?" I asked, given that the shooting preempted commercial flights and commercial sea routes were also precluded.

"Be creative," she responded.

We were, and before Chris set off on his envoy duties, I regaled him in my living room with how it had been a personal friendship with a Maltese businessman, Mr. James Satariano, and his son-in-law, Francis Portelli, that had led to the rental of a catamaran, the Maria Dolores.

That got our people out, and several hundred foreign nationals as well. America seldom only thinks of itself.

It was not an easy rescue -- the details of which are recounted in the recent book Lift Up Your Hearts.

A failed state precluded us from setting anchor for 10 hours. A personal dialogue got us in port. I owe this conversation and its wisdom to my deputy, Rick Mills, a career foreign service leader, and J. Phillip Webb, my on-ship commander (in regular contact with Commander Jane Moraski back in embassy). Whatever its origin, that conversation followed the unassailable axiom of J. Christopher Stevens: that our humanity, in the end, trumps even the greatest or the most infamous of national allegiances.

Yes, the bravado of the only leader the Libyan people had known intimidated, broke cameras, and kept all involved with the rescue on edge. A personal dialogue would permit guards to look the other way.

All returned safely. Oh yes, there were a few bumps and bruises from Mother Nature and a gale-force five-winter storm. To those of you who are skeptical of climate change: Just remember that there is no talking with Mother Nature. Satellite calls and conversations could lower the confrontational temperature among the attitudes at the quay in Libya. They could not lower the size of the waves.

Chris loved the underlying meaning of the rescue: As we would later reflect together, of all the money spent on defense, all the ships and defensive systems and strategic plans, it was a simple, rented catamaran that brought all home safely.

Chris' special gift for diplomacy was not that of large abstraction but of intimate humanity, the kind of diplomacy that comes with a heart and a mind and, despite great differences in religious perspective, much common ground in the hopes and dreams underneath.

To some extent, the people of Libya today face a future of greater freedom of thought, economic fairness and possibility. It is because Chris Stevens placed his trust in their essential goodness -- the essential goodness of human beings.

It is said that war is a failure of diplomacy. It is. But the assassination of a humane and intelligent diplomat is an even greater default, for it is the equivalent of international suicide. It is a grave, self-inflicted wound felt deeply by every person whose patriotism is imagined to give first allegiance to love of neighbor.

As a nation, we have promised to bring the malefactors to justice. That is what the chains of office require, but the "demands" of the Stevens family are necessarily and appropriately greater. Theirs are not the demands of vengeance, but the far more difficult requirement of healing, forgiveness and peace.

On Sept. 10, 2011, Chris Stevens' purpose was to prepare for a meeting the next day that would establish a health care initiative to improve children's health. In an interview reprinted on a conservative blog site, retired Admiral James Lyons finds it difficult to understand what Christopher Stevens was doing in Benghazi on that day. He reflects that, normally, we would be hunkered down in hiding. I believe here the admiral misspoke.

Indeed, if he were given the chance to reconsider his word choice, I believe he would. As the patriot that he is, Admiral Lyons would understand on reflection that, if anything, the diplomacy of Christopher Stevens and the better aspects of American diplomacy generally have nothing to do with hunkering down and hiding and everything to do with understanding and being present to be of assistance.

Chris did not make that meeting. It should be noted, by the way, that the Stevens family, in Chris' name, has fulfilled the promise by indeed bringing a health partnership between Libya and the U.S. to life.

The awards that have been bestowed upon Chris and received for him posthumously by his family are really our enduring love for what Christopher did for us. Namely, he helped us see the better side of the United States of America.

What is that better side? In a complicated world it can be difficult to articulate sometimes, but really it is no more than the enduring love of his family, who remember Christopher at every minute of the day, and who feel his tangible absence.

I have been privileged to come to know the Stevens family. These are Americans who make us proud to stand tall when that last phrase in the anthem is sung because we know that we are "the home of the brave." Sometimes the essence of that bravery consists of healing and forgiveness for what cannot heal, and by rights that can never be forgiven.

I have written before in private correspondence and public articles that I would go to Libya or any other part of the Middle East if it would further Chris' mission of diplomacy as good will. President Obama has not yet made that my calling, but it is a standing offer, as I know it is among many of the professional diplomats in the Dept. of State, and especially those who served with me in the Embassy of the United States, Valletta.

In this moment, when we search our souls for the true understanding of what it means to say that "God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten son," it would be useful if we could stop the unhelpful finger pointing of the past and look forward to the challenges and opportunities that we might miss otherwise in the present. As an example of the backward look that could easily cause us to go off the rails in a mistaken direction, I submit the interview with Admiral Lyons for your consideration. The article is here not because I endorse its content, though I believe portions of it are true, but because I would ask for an element of common decency to attend to this matter.

There are differences of opinion now on how to tread the minefield of the Middle East. These differences are in many ways long-standing, except that in this administration there is a willingness and openness, if you will, to not see the world as Admiral Lyons does in this article -- as black-and-white or pro- or anti-Islam, or pro- or anti-American. If we know anything at this time of our existence, it is that people of every race, nationality and religion desire much the same: an opportunity to raise their families, to do meaningful work, to be loved and respected within communities that sustain them, and, if possible, to leave this world being well thought of and having contributed to its betterment.

No one should question the bona fides of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Leon Panetta or Admiral Mullen to defend the interests of the United States, which, at the enormous cost of Christopher's life, include a commitment that is beyond the United States itself, and that is a commitment to human rights.

In this dangerous world, you can try to arm yourself to the teeth and indulge recrimination against all who hold slightly different views than you, or you can try to understand those views and try to be understood yourself. I'm proud to say that I served and assisted, in a small way, the efforts of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who, far from being a facilitator or gunrunner, as implied by Admiral Lyons in this piece, was someone who loved his family, the gentle breezes off the Pacific, learning about the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, and both honoring them and urging them to see the world as we see it at Christmas and from 40,000 feet up -- without national boundaries that impede our understanding of each other.

If there is one thing that does remain unaddressed after Benghazi, it is how ill-prepared we were, and likely still are, to make reasonable rescue efforts for our personnel. Regrettably, among Admiral Lyons' many complaints, this one rings true. Dealing with this unpreparedness is not simply a matter of placing blame for what took place on the night that Christopher lost his life at our consulate -- for the unpreparedness goes back generations and crosses party lines and reflects what Christopher was working against: seeing the African continent as secondary or unimportant while funding military assets and presence lavishly in Western Europe.

My dear father, of the eighth Air Force B-17 flying Fortress squadron, has been on the ground for some years now, and yet the assets of our military fail to account for the fact that he and the other members of the greatest generation secured a victory in Europe. Having done so, one does not merely do a flyover to scare away adversaries in the midst of an attack; one strategically deploys resources where they are needed, and where they can conduct, in peacetime, reasonable operations so that when the next rescue is needed, we will be there and prepared.

Of course, the best rescue is the unneeded one. As much as we like to see the cavalry ride over the hill in the final reel of the film, when khakied blood bleeds red, it is better to achieve order and harmony in less dramatic ways than the portrayal of the Navy SEALs portrayed in the movies.

Secretary Kerry and his personal efforts in the Middle East are taking the steps necessary to refocus our attention. With that, he is doing more to rectify the loss of Ambassador Stevens and to carry on his work than all the finger pointing by retired heroes like Admiral Lyons. While I suspect that the good Admiral Lyons is irrepressible, perhaps he too would say that Fox should have had the decency to not provoke a retired sailor into diminishing the contributions of the president and Secretaries Clinton and Kerry to the well-being of our country for a few cheap political shots across the bow.

God bless the United States and all those within it who see that our interests have always been in the achievement of a peaceful world and a decent observance of human rights.