London, Sept. 12: I last heard from Chris Stevens two months ago, just after he hosted a July 4 reception in the gardens of the US embassy in Tripoli, Libya.
“Somehow our clever staff located a Libyan band that specialises in 1980s soft rock,” he wrote, “so I felt very much at home.”
In a catch-up email to family and friends, Stevens described his first six weeks back in Libya, a country he knew well, this time as the US ambassador.
“The whole atmosphere has changed for the better,” he wrote. “People smile more and are much more open with foreigners. Americans, French and British are enjoying unusual popularity. Let’s hope it lasts!”
Today, a Libyan official said that Stevens and three other embassy employees were killed in an attack on their car, after militants stormed a consular building in Benghazi to protest an American film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad. Stevens was aware of the risks in the country, where he had already served as deputy chief of mission during the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi.
The embassy building had actually been burnt down by regime loyalists during the Libyan revolt, “so we are now using the previous ambassador’s spacious Palm Springs-like residence as our chancery”, he had written to us.
All American staff lived on a gated compound a few minutes away: “It’s comfortable and resembles a cozy retirement community in Arizona, minus the golf carts.”
He acknowledged the security situation was still a bit uncertain: “We move around town in armoured SUV’s with security teams watching out for us.”
J. Christopher Stevens, an Arabic speaker, was the US administration’s point man during the Libyan revolution, operating from Rome and later Libya itself, where he served as special representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council.
As a generous and unstuffy Californian and a consummate host, his friendships extended well beyond the diplomatic community. I first knew him when he was both political section chief at the US consulate in Jerusalem and an ironic and humorous observer of the foibles of a region he loved.
In July, Chris said he was excited about the prospect of forthcoming Libyan elections and of showing Senator John McCain around town during a visit.
He had got into the habit of a daily run through “our somewhat rural neighbourhood of goat farms and olive groves and vineyards” and had tracked down his old tennis coach, Mohamed, for a weekly match. “All in all, it’s great to be back,” he wrote, “especially in the ‘new Libya’, as people here are saying.”
In a short personal postscript a few days later, he added: “It is quite amazing out here. And now it seems the Muslim Brotherhood has suffered a defeat at the polls! Strange and unexpected.”