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Originally published Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 5:13 PM

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U.S. envoy who plunged into Arab life was rarity

J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in an assault on a diplomatic mission there last week, was an unusual U.S. diplomat, friends and colleagues say. He allowed himself to be governed by the habits, proprieties and slower time scale of the Arab world.

The New York Times

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J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in an assault on a diplomatic mission there last week, was an unusual U.S. diplomat, friends and colleagues say. He allowed himself to be governed by the habits, proprieties and slower time scale of the Arab world.

With the State Department on high alert for security threats, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, and many U.S. diplomats consigned to embassies that resemble fortresses and armored motorcades that do not make unscheduled stops, Stevens plunged into Arab social life. He traded personal risk for personal contact.

His comfort with his environment and his distaste for displays of security, some quietly suggest, may have led to a touch of overconfidence that cost him his life. His death in Benghazi, a city he knew well, came during a Libyan militia attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission there, where his presence had not been advertised. Three other Americans also were killed in the assault.

What the United States lost was not only one of its foremost Arabists, a man who built a bridge to the tribes and militias that toppled the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

It also may be losing, in the unrest sweeping a conflict-prone crescent of Muslim countries from Pakistan to Sudan, a style of diplomacy already on the decline: the street-smart, low-key negotiator who gets things done by building personal relationships.

Stevens, 52, was known as Chris, but he often signed letters and emails to friends as Krees, the way many Arabs pronounced his name. His affection for Arab culture and street life, whether in Syria, Libya or the Palestinian territories, made him many friends and impressive networks of contacts.

Precisely what happened the night he was killed is unclear. But for a U.S. ambassador to have so little security on the anniversary of Sept. 11, especially in a part of Libya known for its radicalism, is bound to raise questions, and in some sense, only adds to the irony of his death in a country he loved, and that for the most part, loved him back as an ally and a friend.

John Bell, an Arabic-speaking former Canadian diplomat, knew Stevens while they were young political officers together in Syria, and later in Jerusalem. "He was a consummate professional, calm and deliberative, with a real sensitivity to the Arab world," Bell said.

"He was good on the ground, and he had a way about him that endeared him to a lot of people; he listened to a lot of people and was not highly opinionated. And that made him a good and unusual American diplomat."

Diana Buttu knew Stevens in Ramallah and Jerusalem for several years from the autumn of 2002, when he was the political officer dealing with the Palestinians and she was the legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiators.

"He was a different kind of American diplomat, he really was," she said. "First, he was interested in being here. He brought a lot of energy and he spoke Arabic, and reached out to people and tried to build relationships for the U.S. In my experience, many U.S. diplomats don't speak Arabic, or if they do, they don't try."

Harvey Morris, as a correspondent for The Financial Times, also knew Stevens then. For him, Stevens was both of a new generation and yet "very much in the tradition of old-school Americans who went to the region, that missionary generation that founded the American University of Beirut, long before any suggestion of U.S. neocolonialism."

Stevens was not above diplomatic gossip, said Morris, who now blogs for The International Herald Tribune. Recounting the private meeting of Cecilia Sarkozy, then the wife of the French president, with Gadhafi in 2007 to try to secure the release of some jailed Bulgarian nurses, Stevens noted that the Libyan leader had opened his robes and was naked underneath.

Another friend in Jerusalem, Noga Tarnopolsky, a journalist, remembers Stevens as "the ideal of what you want when you meet a diplomat; he was a complete anomaly," she said. "Wherever he was living, he was able to let go of everything else and live that place completely."

But she said he was deeply frustrated with security regulations that confined his activities. "He wanted that human contact, he wanted to be able to speak to Palestinians on the street, and he couldn't because security regulations made him always travel in armored vehicles," she said. "He used to talk about how he felt this was an obstacle to his ability to really be who he wanted to be."

At the same time, she said, "those security measures might have saved his life in a very different context," and now there creeps in a thought, she said, that perhaps he was too trusting.

As a diplomat, Stevens also got very high marks from his superiors.

"We were in Damascus together, and I remember running into him Friday in the souk, sipping tea, talking to merchants," said his boss, Elizabeth Dibble, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. "He went out and explored Syria. Many of us in a tough place stick together, but he had Syrian friends and international friends wherever he went."

Stevens, having served already in Gadhafi's Libya, was the perfect choice as the first ambassador to a new Libya, she said, especially after having spent six months in Benghazi during the war working to help the rebel National Transitional Council.

He had gone to Benghazi by boat, with one other diplomat, two security officers and a couple of armored cars. "For him it wasn't just the sense of adventure," Dibble said. "It was not something every Foreign Service officer would be willing to do."

He also had the diplomat's requisite patience. "It takes a lot of tea," Dibble said. "You don't rush into talking points, you develop a relationship and a personal connection, and a series of connections becomes a network. Many Americans, we start at A and work down the list to F. But A to B is not a straight line, and Chris had an instinctive feel for this, how to get things done."

David Welch, a retired senior State Department official, knew Stevens from a first posting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1992 and helped promote him. "He was one of the best of his generation," Welch said.

Helena Kane Finn, who was a senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, remembers her encounters with Stevens with fondness and respect.

"He was able to keep his balance and remain open-minded," she said. "And he had sheer courage. It takes a lot of guts to go into Libya and do what he did. It's not just dinners and cocktail parties. It's people like him who really count."

Martin Indyk was Stevens' boss in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s, when Stevens was running the Iran desk in an earlier effort to re-engage with Tehran.

"He wanted to learn Farsi on the side," Indyk remembered. "He wanted to be our first diplomat on the ground there, which was a stretch to me, but it was no surprise that he was first on the ground in Libya. Some people enjoy bureaucratic fighting in Washington, but he wanted to be out on the front lines where the fires burn. There aren't a lot of people like that."

Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-born writer who met him then, said that "he displayed the quintessential sunny innocence of Americans."

Late last year, as Stevens waited for his confirmation hearings, they met in Washington, D.C., she wrote in thedailybeast.com. They spoke about the radicalization of the Libyan opposition and her concern that there would inevitably be a lashing out at the United States. She cited the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 as inevitable, given the revolutionary narrative.

"Chris' face was unusually flushed as he listened," Hakakian wrote. "He was far more hopeful about the future." He seemed hurt, she said. "Chris had fallen in love with Libya's revolution. At the end, those very forces whose influence he thought would be curbed had claimed his life."

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