A Friend’s Tribute to Ambassador Chris Stevens: The Diplomatic Indiana Jones
He was brilliant, full of conviction, and defied the extremist narrative about Americans. By Roya Hakakian.
“Eating on the floor of a house under the ground! The food was an interesting barley paste, covered with very hot tomato soup. Another adventure in Libya. How are you? C”
How aptly four short sentences capture the ethos of a man, as these do of the late Chris Stevens in a Sept. 4 email. Chris, or as he liked to sometimes sign off, Krees, mischievously echoing the mispronunciation of his name by Persian and Arabic speakers, was the diplomatic equivalent of Indiana Jones. Changing posts from Syria to Israel to Libya, he was always riding the political storms.
He would call all of these sentences so far “over-the-top.” Chris, as Secretary Clinton put it, is an American hero. His earthliness places him not among those larger-than-life kind of heroes, but among the humble, quiet ones—a dervish hero. At a dinner party, Chris was usually the guest who lent an ear than one who was eager to speak.
I first met Chris in the late 1990s, when he was the Iran Desk Officer at the State Department. Chris didn’t study Iran; he exhausted it. Within a few months, he had developed a formidable mastery of Iran’s history and was already contemplating how to tackle the Gordian knot—the impasse between Iran and the U.S.
The radicals who attacked the U.S. compound in Benghazi had no choice but to kill him because Chris defied their narrative about Americans as greedy, arrogant, dimwitted, faithless, cowardly beings. Chris was brilliant, deferential, even demure, full of conviction. If one’s physique is a mark of one’s spirit, Chris, in his monastic routines, was far too slim to appear as a usurper. He displayed the quintessential sunny innocence of Americans. But that innocence was a state of character, not of mind.
And to those who live to become martyrs, Chris’s love of life had to be sheer kufr. However distant the corners where Chris had been posted to, one could always rely on him—upon arriving in the U.S.—to guide one through the new exhibits at the Sackler, or the independent film scene in Washington. If he traveled to visit a friend, he would arrive with a detailed map of the nearby hiking trails and ethnic restaurants. Chris had an inner cultural stethoscope. No matter where he was, he could always hear the beating of the local life.
Having returned to the U.S. in late 2011, awaiting his nomination and, subsequently, his confirmation, he described his own state as being similar to the protagonist in the film The Hurt Locker. The serenity of life in Washington resembled the small-town American supermarket through whose aisles Sergeant Thompson, the elite Army bomb detonator, walked aimlessly scanning row after row of cereal boxes. In the small living room where we last met, he seemed more gaunt than wiry, his ear bandaged after a biopsy. What was eating at him was far beyond jet lag or the minor operation he had undergone. He had been separated from his purpose, which was back in Libya. Before he was officially confirmed to represent the United States in Libya, he represented Libya’s plight in the United States.
That night, I quoted a report I had just read about the un-egalitarian composition of the opposition forces in Egypt and Libya, and made comparisons between Libya in 2011 and Iran in 1979. I thought the absence of women from leadership was an ominous sign that foreshadowed the eventual triumph of the radicals over the democratic forces. I thought the forces of “good” had a small window of opportunity to act to overcome their foes and prevent them from doing what they were destined to do—i.e., lash out against the U.S.
I cited the takeover of the American Embassy in Iran in November 1979 as the inevitable event that could not be prevented, for the revolutionary narrative required that it be taken over. As it happened, it was taken over more than once. The first time on Feb. 14, 1979, days after the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, then finally on Nov. 4. By then, those who stormed the U.S. compound in Tehran had gathered far too much momentum with each takeover that they could not be withstood.
Chris’s face was unusually flushed as he listened. He was far more hopeful about the future. It was not the first time we disagreed. Only this time, I felt as though I’d hurt him. Chris had fallen in love with Libya’s revolution. At the end, those very forces whose influence he thought would be curbed had claimed his life.
The description in Chris’s high-school yearbook reads: “What a bore it is, waking up in the morning always the same person. I wish I were unflinching and emphatic and had big eyebrows and a Message for the Age.”
With every post, whether in Israel, Syria, Libya, Morocco, or Libya, Chris did away with the kind of sameness he dreaded by trying to inhabit the people of those countries. Of this high ideal he set for himself as a teenager, all he had yet to achieve was the big eyebrows.