Obituary: U.S. diplomat J. Christopher Stevens
A University of California, Berkeley, graduate who was confirmed as ambassador to Libya in May, Christopher Stevens knew the dangers inherent in his hands-on style.
A mbassador J. Christopher Stevens was in many ways the model American diplomat, committed, idealistic, willing to take risks and eager to find out what was really happening in obscure corners of the world.
Mr. Stevens, 52, a lanky Californian with a burst of brown hair, also looked the part.
"He was always smiling, unruffled, projecting what I think of as a cool California demeanor, in the best sense," said Robert Danin, a former Middle East hand at the State Department who worked closely with Mr. Stevens.
A University of California, Berkeley, graduate who was confirmed as ambassador to Libya in May, Mr. Stevens knew the dangers inherent in his hands-on style.
From 2007 to 2009, he served as the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Tripoli after the U.S. resumed diplomatic relations with Moammar Gadhafi's government. And last year, during the height of the revolution that eventually toppled Gadhafi, he secretly slipped back into Libya aboard a Greek cargo ship to serve as U.S. envoy to the rebels battling the strongman.
"We had a bombing at the Tibesti (Hotel) the other day, a reminder that Benghazi isn't safe," he emailed an acquaintance in June 2011, referring to the building where he and other diplomats were staying.
In an attack Tuesday on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, the lawyer-turned-diplomat became the first U.S. ambassador to be killed by terrorists since 1979. Mr. Stevens died along with Sean Smith, an information-management officer who joined the U.S. Foreign Service 10 years ago, and two other employees of the State Department whose names had not been released.
The circumstances of the attack — including the motives and any security lapses that contributed to their deaths — are still not known.
"It's especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save," President Obama said Wednesday. Mr. Stevens, a fluent Arabic and French speaker, knew better than most diplomats in the Foreign Service the opportunities and travails facing Libya after the fall of Gadhafi, and was undaunted.
"The image of the striped-pants ambassador who goes to cocktail parties and steeples his hands, that was not Chris Stevens," said Jeffrey Feltman, a former assistant secretary of state and now undersecretary general at the United Nations, who worked closely with him.
After having served as the deputy ambassador during Gadhafi's rule, Mr. Stevens became the Obama administration's main interlocutor to the rebels based in Benghazi; the rebels ultimately overthrew Gadhafi while NATO conducted airstrike missions. Obama rewarded him with the nomination to become the first ambassador in a post-Gadhafi Libya, and he arrived in May with enthusiasm for the country's prospects as a free, Western-friendly democracy.
"The whole atmosphere has changed for the better," he wrote in an email to friends and family in July. "People smile more and are much more open with foreigners. Americans, French and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let's hope it lasts."
Mr. Stevens also earned bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recalled twice visiting him in Libya, most recently in July, when Mr. Stevens "insisted on personally making me a cappuccino, a task that he carried out with as much pride and proficiency as his diplomatic mission."
John Christopher "Chris" Stevens grew up in the East Bay community of Piedmont, graduated from UC Berkeley in 1982 and UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1989. His first service overseas was as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
He was the son of a lawyer, Jan Stevens, and a now-retired Marin Symphony cellist, Mary Commanday.
His stepfather, Robert Commanday, a former classical-music critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, when asked about his stepson's musical pursuits, told a classical-music website that Mr. Stevens "played saxophone, about at the Bill Clinton level, but marginally in public." He also was a tennis player and a Los Angeles Lakers fan, passions that he tried to maintain in Libya.
After law school, Mr. Stevens worked for two years as an international-trade attorney in Washington. But it didn't satisfy him, and at the relatively late age of 31, he joined the Foreign Service.
He spent much of his career in the Middle East, serving in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, where he focused on the Palestinian territories, and in State Department offices overseeing policy in the region.
In Syria in 2001 and 2002, he courted Iraqi exiles before the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government the next year. When the embassy in Damascus held his farewell party, he insisted on it being in a disco and invited all the Iraqis, who were fractious even then.
"This was probably the only time the Iraqis sat at one table — before or since," said a State Department diplomat who served with him then.
When he was confirmed as ambassador in May, he said he considered it "an extraordinary honor."
Colleagues described him as friendly, casual and rarely rattled. He also was candid, a trait that won him fans among Arabs and a following among journalists who covered Middle East hot spots.
He was remembered as a self-effacing bachelor with a wry sense of humor who drank beer, dated women and liked outdoor sports.
"He was a normal guy, not like some of the nerds from the State Department who can't relate with people," said Thomas Moore, who recalled Mr. Stevens buying a Toyota Land Cruiser just before heading to Libya for his first stint, as deputy chief of mission in 2007.
Friends said Mr. Stevens also had a wry sense of humor and a direct style of speaking that is unusual for many diplomats. Preparing then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a meeting with Gadhafi, he alluded to Gadhafi's crush on Rice.
"A self-styled intellectual and philosopher, he has been eagerly anticipating for several years the opportunity to share with you his views on global affairs," Stevens wrote in an August 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
Rice herself later recalled Gadhafi's interest in her as "creepy."
Mr. Stevens had a yearning to mingle with Arabs to get a street-level view of events, and he sometimes chafed about the post-Sept. 11 security measures that sometimes prevented diplomats from reaching far into the hinterland. As political officer in Jerusalem, given the oft-touchy assignment of working with the Palestinian leadership, he tried to get into the West Bank, even when violence flared between Palestinians and Israelis.
Mr. Stevens relished contacts, even with some of the region's unsavory personalities. In another diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, he described Gadhafi as "notoriously mercurial" but also, on occasion, "an engaging and charming interlocutor."
He adhered to a routine of daily runs through goat farms, olive groves and vineyards. In an email to family and friends, he joked about the embassy's Fourth of July party.
"Somehow our clever staff located a Libyan band that specializes in 1980s soft rock," he wrote, "so I felt very much at home."
By Wednesday afternoon, the wall on Mr. Stevens' Facebook page had turned into a memorial as friends from high school, college, the Peace Corps and the State Department posted photos and eulogies.
"In our 1983 Peace Corps training in Morocco, there was a tall, blond kid who was known, among other things, as the one with the unfailing old-school courtesy toward all," wrote Valerie Staats, who is now the Peace Corps director in Sierra Leone. Mr. Stevens, she recalled, "always said he wanted to be an ambassador, and we didn't doubt him."
Mervat Mhani, an activist for The Free Generation Movement in Libya, said she could "no longer hold my head up high as a Libyan."
Compiled from the Tribune Washington bureau, The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Washington Post