Once again the polarized political environment is trumping serious real-world issues. On Tuesday, a truly genuine human being, Ambassador Chris Stevens, died during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya perpetrated by a group with extremist ties. The group took advantage of people demonstrating against a film offensive to Muslims to carry out the attack. New reports suggest that the attacks in both Libya and Cairo were timed for the commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks and in retaliation for U.S. drone strikes and attacks on Al Qaeda earlier this year.
When I worked in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to meet with Chris on a few occasions to discuss U.S. policy toward Iran and Libya. At our first meeting in Spring 2007 when he was working on an exchange from the State Department in a Senate office, Chris learned that I had traveled Libya as part of civil society exchange soon after U.S. sanctions against the country were lifted in 2003, and again in 2005. He asked to meet with me again to learn all he could about my experiences in the country before he was set to take up a diplomatic post there that year. He was truly interested in learning about the Libyan culture and was intent on improving American-Libyan relations, as well as Arab-American relations more broadly. As one of my former DC colleagues wrote today, Chris was precisely the right person to serve as U.S. Ambassador. He was an excellent representative of the United States, a gifted foreign service officer, and he will be missed.
The tragic killing of Ambassador Stevens and three of his staff sheds some light on the situation on the ground and the gaps in security. Before September 11, 2012, many journalists and pundits tried to paint a rosy situation in Libya. But the reality on ground for the people living there is far different. One of my contacts in Libya whom I met on my first trip to the country, Ibrahim, emailed me this message:
The situation is not OK at all. Peoples’ hopes from the 17 February change (the Libyan revolution) have not been met. There is a real serious threat of civil war that is so obvious and it is only a matter of time if things keep on going this way. It’s so sad, no one is really in control of any thing. The western world has forgotten about human rights in Libya at this time and people are really questioning the real intentions of the USA and Europe.
It will take more than a speech to improve Arab-American relations and to improve the situation on the ground for the beleaguered peoples in the Middle East. However, instead of using the tragedy of September 11, 2012 as means for addressing how the United States will work with allies and partners to do so, the parties have instead engaged in partisan bickering. The American people and the Libyan people deserve better from politicians than the politicization of the tragic attacks.