J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in an assault on a diplomatic mission there last week, was happy to gossip but was revered for listening. A Northern Californian with a toothy grin, he had a passion for the Arab world and its language, and he went out of his way to use the language, whether with officials or shopkeepers, in an effort to show respect.
In his willingness to allow others to be heard, even when he had an important message to impart, Stevens 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 resembling fortresses and armored motorcades that don't 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,with three other Americans, came during a Libyan militia attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission there, where his presence had not been advertised.
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 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 radicalism, is bound to raise questions, and in some sense, adds to the irony of his death in a country he loved, and which, for the most part, loved him back as an ally and 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."
Harvey Morris, as a correspondent for the Financial Times, knew Stevens from the autumn of 2002, when Stevens was the political officer dealing with the Palestinians. For him, Stevens was 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."
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, 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."