Our Responsibility to Continue Ambassador Chris Stevens' Mission

The U.S. diplomat, killed in Libya, embodied the important effort to engage the moderates of the Middle East.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens leaves a June meeting with Libyan officials. (Reuters)

Whoever murdered Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his staff in Libya this week is our enemy. And so are the bigots who made a lurid amateur video denigrating Islam.

Whether the video prompted the deadly attack in Libya is not yet known. Militant groups may have planned the killings. And the two acts are not equivalent: murdering four people is unjustifiable and incomparably worse than making an insulting video.

But both acts are the products of delusional extremists trying to drive a wedge between the United States and the Islamic world. Muslim and Christian extremists may seem to have nothing in common, but they are united in their desire to divide us. Stevens, an affable 52-year-old diplomat famed for his humility, integrity and willingness to listen, would not want us to help them, according to colleagues and friends.


Mark Ward, a senior USAID and State Department official who worked with Stevens in Libya, said his wishes would be clear. "He would say to the American people please don't turn your back on Libya," Ward said in an interview Wednesday. "They've been through 40 terrible years, they've just held elections and they've rejected extremism. This is absolutely not the time to let a couple of lunatics throw us off our resolve."

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According to Ward, Stevens' message to Libyans would be to arrest the suspected perpetrators, provide them with defense lawyers and give them a fair trial. ''Do the right thing,'" Ward said of the way to honor Stevens. "If there is one thing [his] life should stand for, let it stand for the rule of law."

Fred Abrahams, a senior advisor with Human Rights Watch who frequently met with Stevens while working in Libya, agreed. He said the ambassador wasn't naïve about the country's vast problems but saw Muammar Qaddafi's overthrow as an historic opportunity to establish the rule of law Libyans yearned for after 42-years of chaotic Qaddafi rule.

"Just as the U.S. should not be blamed for the offensive film of a few deluded whackos, Libya should not be blamed for the unjustified violence of a few ignorant extremists," Abrahams said in an email Thursday. "And maybe this will spur the Libyan government to rein in the militias that have troubled Libya since Qaddafi's fall -- Chris would have wanted that."

Abrahams and Ward pointed out that the Libyan government condemned Stevens' killing and that many Libyans - including Islamists - have as well. He and Ward both pointed to the country's July elections as a more accurate expression of the country's popular will.

At the ballot box, conservative Islamic religious parties fared comparatively poorly in Libya after sweeping post-Arab Spring elections in Tunisia and Egypt. A coalition of Libyan liberals led by war-time opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril won 39 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties in the new national assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party came in second with 17 seats.

To the surprise of many observers, Jibril's liberals won seat in areas considered conservative strongholds. Thirty-two women won seats as well. The ultimate balance of power, though, will be decided by 120 candidates who won seats reserved for independents.

The reaction from other corners has been disappointing. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued statements that condemned the video more forcefully than they did the killings of the diplomats. The tepid responses are unjustifiable and reflect a widespread assumption among conservative Muslims that the United States government tacitly supports the video. In societies where leaders have tightly controlled public debate for decades, American explanations about the need for freedom of speech are viewed skeptically.

And in the United States, a predictably petty campaign spat emerged, with Mitt Romney and other conservatives accusing President Obama of responding to the attacks too meekly. Liberals, in turn, ridiculed Romney and questioned his mental state.

Among average Americans, the murder of Stevens is likely to reinforce a widespread desire for the United States to get out -- and get out now --  of the Middle East. After losing 7,900 American lives and at least $1.2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are understandably exhausted with the region after a decade in which Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed 5,000 American lives and over $1.2 trillion in spending.

I agree that our military invasions have been disastrous but believe there are other tools we can use, from diplomacy to trade to technology, to support moderate Muslims. A historic struggle between conservatives and liberals is underway across the Islamic world. It is vital that the United States find a way to more consistently, cheaply and effective support moderates in the region.

In many ways, Stevens embodied that new approach. The northern California native worked as Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and then gave up a career as an international trade lawyer to become a diplomat. He then spent twenty years working as a diplomat across the Middle East. In Libya, he coordinated aid to the Libyan opposition during the 2011 uprising. After becoming ambassador, he spent hours listening to Libyans and differentiating among them.

"He represented what you hoped would be the model of a new American diplomat," said Ward, the former colleague. "He was much happier rolling his sleeves up and going to work and talking to Libyans."

The best way to honor Stevens is to bring the perpetrators to justice, condemn the bigotry on all sides, and increase our interaction with the Muslim world, not decrease it. That is the most powerful way to counter the conspiracy theories, prejudice and stereotypes spawned by extremists. Bigots on both sides want us to fear, dehumanize and denigrate each other.

Three weeks before he died, Stevens re-opened the American consulate in Tripoli and announced that visas would be issued to hundreds of Libyan businessmen, journalists and students to visit the United States. He said that increasing trade, educational ties and interaction between the two countries was vital.

"Relationships between governments are important, but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding," he said. "So, my message to Libyans today is ahlan wasahlan bikum. You are welcome to visit America, and there's the door!"

We should open doors, not close them.

This post originally appeared at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.