11/08/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Could We Have Saved Chris Stevens?

Not even an optimistic president can do the impossible.

You have to give special praise to Ty Woods and Glen Doherty for trying.

Their odds were anything but good given the embassy assets that might have been relied upon, but were absent: the post's Marine Detachment (not yet fully in place and in any event in Tripoli -- hundreds of miles and hours away); the diplomatic security staff (this was Ty and Glen), well trained locally employed security -- also not fully trained or hired, and in any event, while helpful with more modest order keeping, not capable of the push-back needed for a terror attack, and most importantly a rapid response, special forces team (not in country and it is disputed whether sufficiently on alert given the cable traffic indicating increasing anti-U.S. hostility). So, too, helicopter gunships and other weaponry capable of a targeted urban defense response was apparently also out of reach or not assigned to Embassy-Libya's force protection. Without the necessary personnel and equipment it is likely that more Americans would have perished as well as innocent Libyan civilians, the latter raising serious questions under international law.

As noted in my earlier post on Benghazi, the Pentagon, on behalf of the president, announced after the Benghazi attack that General Carter Ham, the commander of AFRICOM (a military region that includes Libya, but exists only on a map) will be replaced by General Daniel Rodriquez.

Is it possible for the president or his advisors to have misjudged the potential for rescue? Sure, they're human, but such error is unlikely given the long experience of General Ham (40 years) and the quality of the training of the soldiers at his command.

Is it possible that the president was angry that he was not aware until the crisis was unfolding that needed military assets were not in place to even attempt a rescue without endangering unduly the rescuers or triggering an international consequence that would defeat all that Chris Stevens represented -- namely, the normalization of relations with the new Libyan government and our genuine wish for their self-directed prosperity?

This is more likely, and it would be the awful prerogative of the president to hold someone accountable for the failure to have the needed resources at the ready. That person by position: General Ham. However, and this is important, the general should be given an appropriate forum to explain both the state of readiness as he saw that evening, and if it was not good as speculated, why that was the case.

Let me suggest an answer for these deficiencies that may be overlooked; it is based on my own ambassadorial experience in the Mediterranean region.

Some of this thinking is reflected in the 2012 Strategic Plan I drafted with my embassy colleagues in 2010 as part of my ambassadorial responsibility in nearby Malta (the closest EU nation to Libya -- 200 nautical miles away):

The United States lacked a comprehensive Mediterranean policy because until recently, EUCOM, the European command, dominated in attention and resources, while AFRICOM, an artificial construct that split off the African portion of the Mediterranean (including Libya) was only newly created, and notwithstanding General Ham's significant personal ability was greatly under-staffed and under-funded. To make matters worse, the same artificial departmental divisions inhabited the State Department, with an EUR or European section and a NEA or near east Asian section.

Why an artificial division unreflected of actual geography?

• It reflects the vast disparity of wealth and until now geopolitical importance of the Northern hemisphere (the North-South divide)
• It reflects the more forced or awkward relations we have had for the past several decades or longer with Arab nations, and especially those nations with oppressive un-or dubiously-elected leaders
• It reflected a pre-Obama foreign policy view that it was better to pay for stability than to use diplomacy to encourage the emergence of accountable responsible government structures observing genuine freedom
• The price of purchased stability was high, and could be seen in the misery of the people leading to disillusionment with our interests or intentions, and an over-reliance upon clan or tribal cultures ill-suited to peace in the 21st century; the consequences of such disillusionment include massive irregular migration as well as a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment;
• An ugly and denigrating increase in human trafficking
• An uptick in the drug trade as well as greater difficulty identifying trade in illegal weapons, including enriched materials sought by Iran for its illicit weapons objectives -- which, of course, increasingly destabilizes the Middle East.
• A failure to grasp the language, cultural, economic and, most significantly, religious differences;
• And because all of those aspects are more understandable to us in the North, than in the south, we have been favoring what we are familiar with.

If General Ham lacked needed assets in AFRICOM, I suggest from this diplomat's perspective that it was less the product of his conscious decision than the tenacious remnants of the less-than-informed decision of an earlier period that made no effort to grasp how peaceful relations could be possible in lands that worshipped differently and dressed differently and spoke differently than ourselves.

The sad irony is that Chris Stevens was -- even at his young age -- both wise and open to the necessary recognition of human right and dignity across these myriad of differences that, if properly appreciated and accommodated in governmental structure, need not divide or oppress, but if understood, unify in their own enrichment.

The 2012 Strategic Plan is a "sensitive but unclassified" document which the relevant committees of Congress sure to take up the Benghazi decision making can, and should, utilize to put matters in broader context. Not surprisingly, the report urges that the Republic of Malta, a country of uncommon kindness and friendship, be recognized by us as it has been recognized by the EU as the bridge between Europe and the Arab nations; indeed, the EU located its liaison office with Arab nations in Malta; in addition, there are countless governmental and commercial relationships between Malta and North Africa (Libya in particular) that can be relied upon to build the bridges of understanding and trade that can help us shape the mutual respect and mutual understanding the president spoke of in 2009 in Egypt, and for which Chris Stevens' daily efforts were devoted.

And for those of the conservative mind that are sometime prone to see a foreign policy of this type as too progressive or too culturally liberal or too Islamic or whatever, it is worthy of mention that our creditor nation China has long indulged expansive investment in North Africa and the accompanying need for a comprehensive Mediterranean foreign policy.

The election is concluded and it has brought us a return to office of a president who is domestically capable and by the acquired experience -- some paid for dearly by diplomats who were the first agents of that "change we need," -- internationally respected.

And how deep is that respect?

On my first day as ambassador, as my car with flag flying proudly upon its fender pulled from the gate, I noticed an elderly Maltese man saluting the flag of the United States. "Jimmy," I said to the long-time embassy driver who is himself a Maltese citizen, "stop the car, I want to hug that fella." "Ambassador," Jimmy said, "if you hugged all who honored your flag we would never get you to the embassy on time." I smiled and thought how very privileged I was to represent my country in another and how I always needed to remember that fact in accepting thanks or a salute; those treasured moments of mutual respect and friendship were on behalf of countless men and women back home. And while I didn't know it then, it was also for a new American friend just a short distance northward across the Mediterranean, named Chris. I intended to show my love and respect for U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by my own vote to reelect Barack Obama to the presidency of these United States.