I sat, numb, on a bus in front of the State Department on the morning of Sept. 14, 2012. Most of my colleagues in the Office of Maghreb Affairs had boarded buses, along with other State Department employees, to head to Joint Base Andrews to receive the bodies of our ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans who had died less than three days earlier in Benghazi. Several of my colleagues stayed behind to support our embassy in Tunis, which at the time was under attack as well. It was a horrible, surreal day. I had been a Libya desk officer for just over 10 weeks. It was my first job in the U.S. government.
Ambassador Stevens was one of the main reasons I took the position on the desk. From my perch in Beirut in 2011, I admired his enthusiasm for engagement in Libya during the revolution that began there exactly 10 years ago this year. That moment of fleeting optimism felt a lifetime away as I stood in that hangar.
Things were still for the first time in days; at least, still enough to let what had just happened sink in. The families of the victims of the attack were there, including small children. A string of the most senior members of government gave speeches that, frankly, I have difficulty recalling. What I remember most clearly was the Marine Band playing Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony as the caskets were unloaded. It’s a piece I used to love to play on the cello when I was growing up. It also repeats on my daughter’s sound machine to help her sleep now. Sometimes I sit with her in the dark as it plays, and the crushing memory of that hangar washes over me anew. I hold her a little bit tighter when it comes on. She doesn’t know why.
In that hanger I was preoccupied with my own thoughts, analyzing the expressions of some of the hundreds of State Department employees, crammed together on the edges of the ceremony.
I watched my colleagues grieve. Should we have been there? Why did Stevens think it was worth the risk to go to Benghazi? Was it bad judgment or just bad luck?
Life as a Libya desk officer after the Benghazi attack was hectic: responding to the avalanche of Congressional interest in the portfolio, supporting our few remaining staff in Tripoli, drafting memo after memo for senior State Department officials. There was no time to dwell on these questions. I watched as U.S. policy toward Libya took a sharp turn. The U.S. focus on democratic transition and good governance shifted dramatically to a narrower focus on security assistance, especially counterterrorism assistance, and, of course, supporting the FBI investigation into the attack. After two years, I left the State Department and moved back to the Middle East. Yet these gnawing questions stayed with me, despite the passage of time and my physical distance from the State Department.
I now believe that Stevens took a justifiable risk when he pressed to keep the mission in Benghazi open, even though he paid for it with his life.
In 2018, I began researching how the State Department decides whether to risk sending diplomats to dangerous places. After several years of combing through tens of thousands of pages of government emails and interviews that Congress made publicly available following their investigations of the attack, as well as speaking with seasoned diplomats, and keeping an eye on developments in Libya, it is clear that he had made the right choice. By having diplomats in Benghazi, we had a chance to advance U.S. national interests in Libya without resorting to the use of force. Having a U.S. diplomatic presence in Benghazi may not have prevented Libya from spiraling toward division and violent conflict that compelled Stevens’ successor, Ambassador Deborah Jones, to make the difficult but necessary decision to evacuate our embassy in Tripoli in 2014. But our absence undermined our ability to promote our interest in a democratic, unified, and stable Libyan state.
In September 2011, the same month I had my interview for the position of Libya desk officer, Stevens wrote an email from Benghazi to DC laying out the policy justification for maintaining at least a temporary mission in Benghazi. He noted that this mission would allow for continued contact with political leadership in eastern Libya that had not yet moved to the capital in Tripoli. For Stevens, engagement with the east was essential to ensure the success of Libya’s democratic transition. He added that several important government entities, including the national oil company, were considering moving their headquarters to Benghazi. The U.S. mission would also allow diplomats to monitor political trends in eastern Libya, the birthplace of the revolution, and home to approximately one-third of the Libyan population.
Symbolically, keeping the mission open would signal to eastern Libyans that the United States was committed to ensuring that the east would not be neglected or excluded politically or economically, as it was under the former regime. Programmatically, Stevens noted that the mission would facilitate implementation of important U.S. government projects aimed at strengthening civil society, free press, local governance, and the collection of loose conventional weapons.
Diplomacy provides a cost-effective way to project power peacefully. And, by and large, Americans want to rely more on diplomacy to prevent conflict. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019, nearly three-quarters of Americans surveyed believe that diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace. Recognizing this, President Joe Biden visited the State Department in the first month of his administration and declared that “diplomacy is back.” Despite the implications of this statement, diplomacy has rarely been the tool of first resort in U.S. foreign policy. And traumas like the Benghazi attack have caused Americans to question the benefits of having diplomats in dangerous places when the costs can be so high. But to develop an innovative U.S. grand strategy that allows us to advance American foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa in ways that do not involve unpopular military entanglements, we must strengthen our diplomatic muscles there. And strengthening our diplomatic muscles in the Middle East and North Africa requires that we allow diplomats to do their jobs in dangerous places like Benghazi. Embassies in exile are okay, but they are no substitute for being in the country for long enough periods where it is possible to really understand the place and develop the strategic empathy required to deal with today’s global challenges effectively.
Stevens understood the risks of going to Benghazi. In the year prior to his death in September 2012, evidence from Stevens’ emails and diary entries indicate that, while he was keenly aware of the deteriorating security environment in Benghazi, he continued to believe in the mission’s strategic value.
The fate of eastern Libya was — and is — a strong determinant of the fate of Libya and the region more broadly. After Stevens’ death and our departure from Benghazi, many of the other remaining foreign missions there also closed. Our optimism soured. Many of the worst scenarios that the Benghazi mission was well-placed to help prevent unfolded. Taking advantage of the renewed neglect, both from the weak government in Tripoli and the international community, terrorist organizations like Ansar al-Sharia ramped up their assassination campaign in the east, especially in Benghazi. With the security situation deteriorating and eastern grievances about chronic neglect and exclusion growing, divisive and ambitious individuals, like the former military officer and dual Libyan U.S. citizen, Khalifa Haftar, mobilized support there. These individuals have contributed directly to the violence and discord in Libya that continues to this day.
Eastern civil society organizations, media outlets, and politicians were targeted by terrorist organizations, and more recently have come under increasing pressure not to speak out against Haftar’s political project. For example, Benghazi parliamentarian Siham Sergiwa was kidnapped in 2019 after she expressed disapproval for his deadly military adventurism in Tripoli. Her fate remains unknown. Since 2014, sporadic conflict has evolved into civil war and then an internationalized armed conflict involving powerful foreign militaries and mercenary forces. The specter of formal division of the country has loomed amid split government institutions in the east and west — with their separate policies and patrons. International efforts to help repair this damage have faltered over the years. Most spectacularly, Haftar launched his attack on Tripoli in 2019 while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in the capital promoting national dialogue efforts. Without a consistent presence in Benghazi (or even Tripoli since 2014), U.S. diplomats try to understand local dynamics through meetings with Libyans who can travel to Tripoli or Tunis, and with short trips into Libya when possible. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, these limitations challenged U.S. diplomatic and development efforts.
As a desk officer, it is sometimes difficult to poke your head up and see how dynamics in “your” country are connected to the rest of the world. But what happens in Libya impacts U.S. global priorities. We have watched Russia increase its presence in the region and gain influence in Libya, especially in Benghazi and the east. Their actions have contributed to Libya’s instability, undermined the prospects for democratic transition, and threatened NATO’s ability to promote stability in its near abroad to the south. The counterproductive involvement of the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in the Libyan conflict complicates our relationships with an important regional partner and NATO ally, respectively. While we have been absent from Libya, Turkey, Russia, and the UAE have developed airbases there that they use to participate directly and indirectly in deadly fighting. And the situation in Libya has contributed to tense debates within Europe about its migration policy that have fomented divisions and dysfunction within the EU. Instead of devising a reasonable plan to accept migrants and refugees, the EU has adopted policies that return these people to Libya, where their human rights are routinely and horrifically violated. This policy has tarnished the reputation and cohesiveness of the EU, one of the United States’ most important partners in the Middle East and North Africa.
Late 2012 was a critical time to build on the goodwill between the United States and eastern Libyans and help bolster a fragile democratic transition. In our absence, other external actors have filled the gap with corrosive effect. Stevens died even though his mission was justified. That’s a hard truth to accept. It is true that, sometimes, bad things happen to good people doing important work — it’s a fact that I know many American diplomats understand. They continue to serve their country with courage and determination, knowing that this is a risk they sometimes take in their jobs.
This April will mark 10 years since Stevens hitched a ride on a Greek cargo ship to Benghazi to be the face of U.S. engagement with the opposition to Muammar Gadhafi. Shortly after Stevens’ death, former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns said of him “his was the kind of courage and talent and leadership that would inspire another generation of American diplomats.” Sadly, the overwhelming impact of Stevens’ death and the subsequent political firestorm of #Benghazigate exacerbated a cultural and structural shift toward risk aversion within the State Department and American society. It is a shift that has hindered the United States’ ability to keep up with the diplomatic power of peers and competitors, and advance our interests peacefully, including in eastern Libya.
According to the people who knew Stevens much better than I did, this is not the legacy he wanted to leave. For years, veteran diplomats have been trying to explain to the American people why being in places like Benghazi is sometimes worth that risk. So far, these messages have not resulted in cultural shifts at the State Department or in American perceptions of what it means to be a diplomat. We refuse to confront the necessary and difficult trade-offs between risk to diplomatic personnel and risks of declining diplomatic power. Diplomats are sometimes denied the ability to move around a country because if anything happens to them, it could result in a decision from Washington — the “6,000-mile screwdriver” — to evacuate the mission and render it ineffective. There is much to be done to change the State Department’s culture of risk aversion. And many smart, experienced people have put forward good ideas for how to do this. But to prevent another #Benghazigate, all parts of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus — including Congress — need to work together to explain clearly to the American people why the work that diplomats have done, and continue to do, in places like Benghazi matters so much that they sometimes take calculated risks with their lives to do it.