Honoring Chris Stevens
How the U.S. ambassador killed this week in Benghazi would have handled Libya.
The Sept. 11 killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens is a disaster for Libya’s post-Qaddafi transition. The perpetrators of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi ruthlessly exploited Libya’s fluid security situation and capitalized on the symbolism of 9/11, all to undermine the country’s heretofore impressive steps towards democracy and endanger its burgeoning relationship with the United States.
I met Ambassador Stevens on a handful of occasions. He was a casual and approachable man who boasted an impressive personal touch. His killing is not only a tragedy for both Americans and Libyans — it is an attack on the engagement efforts between the two countries that he symbolized. It is no small irony that Stevens was killed as he was in Benghazi to open up an American cultural center. The likely long-term effect of this tragedy is that the U.S. mission in Benghazi will be shut down indefinitely, and plans to open a full consulate will be shelved. This is terrible news for the new Libya: Benghazi needs the mission, the cultural center, and the consulate to help overcome its decades of isolation under Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Stevens worked tirelessly to support a free Libya. Since his untimely death, he has received well-deserved praise from all quarters for his work in the country. It seems only natural to ask, then, how he would handle the crisis that Libya currently finds itself in. As a staunch advocate of increased U.S. engagement in Libya, he frequently spoke about the nuts and bolts that would be needed to move the U.S.-Libyan relationship to the next level — seemingly trivial things like deploying a full-time commercial officer to work in the U.S. Embassy and smoothing the visa hurdles that prevent more Libyan students from studying in the United States. He was especially a believer in giving the Libyans whatever technical expert they were clamoring for — the last time I spoke with him, he told me that his Libyan counterparts wanted Americans with experience in integrating war veterans back into society. If he were still alive, Stevens would understand that cowering inside the embassy has the potential to make Libya more, not less, dangerous for U.S. personnel.
The murder of Stevens, as well as other American and Libyan personnel, has unsurprisingly overshadowed the country’s recent positive developments. On July 7, free and fair elections were held in Libya and a non-Islamist majority was elected to the General National Congress (GNC). The new body, which assumed power on Aug. 8, had been taking steps to combat the low-level militia violence that has plagued the country since the fall of Qaddafi. That progress is now being called into question. Just like Egyptian terrorists who attack tourists at the pyramids or at Sinai’s beaches, the Libyan militants struck at the very lifeblood of their country’s economy. If the security situation deteriorates and foreign companies cut back on their investments, Libya’s transition to democracy will have little chance of success, despite the goodwill of both the Libyan people and the international community.
Amid a week filled with tragedy, Libya took another step forward: On Sept. 12, the GNC convened to elect Mustafa Abu Shagur as prime minister, making him the first truly elected leader in the country’s history. So joyous was this news that many Libyans resumed their habit of firing celebratory rounds into the night sky.
Abu Shagur has his work cut out for him. He will have to rapidly distance himself from the mistakes of the NTC, in which he served as deputy prime minister. He will have to choose ministers based on technical merit, and not for partisan or geographical reasons. This especially means not giving the interior ministry to an official from Misrata and the defense ministry to a senior militiaman from Zintan, as they currently are allotted.
Abu Shagur knows that the security situation must be his top priority, but building the fledgling Libyan security services will require active Western, and especially American, involvement. The goal of the consulate attack was to scare away just such assistance. To prevail over the terrorists, the United States must remain involved in Libyan capacity building. As I wrote back in February, there is much more the United States can do to help its Libyan allies, including serving as a matchmaker between Libyan officials and the American private sector and engaging with moderate Islamists and mainstream militias.
Most Libyans realize that the United States is a crucial ally and was instrumental in supporting the revolution. A recent Gallup survey found that Libyans’ views of the United States were the most favorable in the history of its polling of the Arab Middle East. Abu Shagur’s election provides another piece of evidence: The new Libyan prime minister is an American citizen — proof that ordinary Libyans don’t harbor strong anti-U.S. sentiments.
Though Abu Shagur must renounce his U.S. citizenship before being sworn in as prime minister, he will remain a willing friend and partner with the United States. Nonetheless, the bilateral relationship is now being put to the test. The changing security restrictions on foreign diplomats in Libya in the wake of this tragedy will present a massive challenge: Non-essential U.S. embassy staff have already left Libya and the future of cultural outreach and education programs are up in the air. Pre-existing security protocols have already limited the movements of diplomats outside their embassies. How can diplomats build personal connections without traveling around the country, or even around the capital?
Paradoxically, this is exactly the moment that outreach programs and a human touch are most required. Sending 50 marines to help the Libyans wage their upcoming counteroffensive against the militants throughout eastern Libya is necessary — the Libyans lack the capacity themselves — but is unlikely to drastically help matters.
Libya not only needs security for its own sake, but to encourage foreign investment that will bolster its economy and consequently provide a better life for its people. These concerns are currently the largest barrier to foreign companies entering the Libyan market. A common misconception holds that most foreign companies operating in Libya are in the oil sector. In fact, this isn’t a growth sector for American companies — but helping the Libyans spend their petrodollars on infrastructure and diversifying their economy is.
The updated State Department travel warning issued on Sept. 12 could have been even more restrictive, but fortunately it was wisely understated. It only warns U.S. citizens against nonessential travel to Libya — it does not advise them to leave Libya immediately. However, this is a distinction that might be lost on some businessmen, who undoubtedly have the murder of the U.S. ambassador and his colleagues fresh on their minds.
Before the attack, there was a sense that Libya’s sporadic violence consisted of regional or tribal conflicts that did not pose much direct threat to foreigners. It will be extremely dangerous if this healthy perception shifts. If America cuts and runs or lashes out in revenge, security and stability will deteriorate, foreign direct investment will dry up, and the Libyan economy outside of the oil sector will stagnate. That will provide fertile soil for the worst elements inside Libya to regain a foothold.
Carefully crafted American engagement can help restore positive momentum to the political transition currently underway in Libya. In the wake of the savage killing of its ambassador, it’s time for the United States to double down.