The recent closure of the U.S. embassy in Libya is said to be attributable to a "significant deterioration" of the security of embassy personnel. The evacuation has prompted other nations to follow suit. In light of the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012, the evacuation was surely understandable. It is important, however, both to keep faith with the mission of Ambassador Stevens and for U.S. and Libyan interests, to underscore the State Department's characterization of the departure as "temporary."
Sure, you might say, it is easy to pontificate safely in an office a continent away; perhaps it is, so let me reaffirm my offer to then-Secretary of State Clinton in 2012 to take up the work of my fallen colleague.
I am familiar with evacuations from Libya as I was tasked with securing the rescue of roughly 100 U.S. embassy personnel from Libya in February 2011 at the start of the so-called "Arab Spring." The current evacuation had the benefit of a substantial amount of military hardware and moved the contingent to safety in neighboring Tunisia. Because the President had yet to decide in February 2011 whether to support a no-fly zone to protect Libyan and other civilians from Gaddafi-led targeting, my instruction was to find a non-military means of rescue.
As recounted in the book, Lift Up Your Hearts, the means we found was a rented catamaran.
The journey by sea turned out to be dicey; the ship was denied the right to set anchor initially, subjected to a certain amount of psychological intimidation beyond the nearby gun fire, and then after those piloting the vessel succeeded in negotiating the vessel into port, we faced a gale force 5 storm that literally placed the vessel as described in the book "between hell and high water." Yet, with the assistance of some of the most remarkable military and foreign service staff, and the confidence of a Maltese businessman whose ship we leased, we rescued all of the American embassy personnel and 238 foreign nationals from other embassies and countries from around the globe.
Yet my point in writing is not to extol the leaving, but to encourage the returning as soon as possible to avoid Libya being consigned to the status of a failed state, as French author Bernard-Henri Levy has thoughtfully written in the August 5, 2014 issue of the New Republic. His analysis is spot on and should be acted upon.
One way in which this might be facilitated is to keep significant diplomatic personnel assigned to Libya nearby, a prospect that is eminently possible because 200 nautical miles north of Tripoli is our embassy in Valletta, Malta. During my service, a brand new embassy structure was completed on a 10 acre compound just outside the capital city. The compound has excellent security and ample space for double-bunking. Most importantly, because Malta does considerable business with Libya, and has demonstrated its confidence in the U.S. in numerous ways, including, for example, by helping us apply the previous sanctions that have opened discussions with Iran, the idea of a U.S. Libyan diplomatic presence in Malta merits serious consideration.
At the onset of the Arab Spring, the one plea repeatedly made to me by the Libya's new political, diplomatic and business leadership was: "United States, please do not abandon the people of Libya. United States, please bring your goods and manufacturing know how into the Libyan market, both as a way of providing greater employment for yourselves but also as a way of giving us the training and the means of a better life." The positive labor assessment of the Libyan workforce was everywhere evident in the experience of those already operating hotels, restaurants and shops in Libya. With abundant oil revenues prospectively invested in infrastructure and education, rather than the arrogant whimsy of someone who viewed himself as the monarch of the African continent, the Libyan people would thrive.
As is well-known, I counted Ambassador Stevens a friend and respected him as a diplomat. The public memory of Chris is distorted by redundant partisan efforts to locate the cause for his death at the door of likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. That the evidence does not support the charge makes it hurtful and irresponsible, but it is also regrettable since it takes the focus off the real issue: namely, whether the Congress is prepared to provide the State Department and the Pentagon with the resources necessary to continue the mission of Ambassador Stevens to establish a secure democracy in Libya.
In the living room and garden of the embassy residence, Chris could be overheard excitedly extolling Libya's potential as a commercial partner, as a resource filled with ancient treasures of antiquity, and as a bulwark against human trafficking, illicit drug and weapons trade, and as a tripwire protecting the back door or southern gate into Europe.
Of course, at the time of Ambassador Stevens' death, Libya was few of those things -- yet. Indeed, it often was the source of human rights violations of the most sickening nature, especially in its treatment of migratory populations from sub-Sahara Africa -- murdering the men, raping the women, selling children into slavery, stealing the meager resource that brought the migrating families almost to safety, or at least to the shoreline of the Mediterranean where the "only" thing left to navigate were the sea's winds and unpredictable storms.
No one, not even the very optimistic Chris Stevens himself, thought the reform of Libya into a democratic state could be accomplished easily. It would take time and new resources. Despite congressional huffing and puffing, this could not have been news as many of the resources needed were detailed in strategic plans drafted over the last five years by Ambassadors serving in the Mediterranean region, like Christopher and myself. The strategic internal planning of the State Department is of course classified and cannot be discussed here; it is good to see that following the loss of Ambassador Stevens, the defense region known as the African command or Africom has relocated its headquarters to Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.
Where was it when Christopher Stevens lost his life? Stuttgart. That, too, was a "temporary" measure, but it didn't end until the difficulty of sharing military assets between Europe and Africa took on fatal consequences in Benghazi. Today, not surprisingly, a good deal of the training at Djibouti and the training of elite forces in Spain is aimed at containing terrorist activity like the kind in Benghazi. Much of the effort is directed at a threatening and sophisticated terrorist organization, Al-Shabaab, which claimed responsibility for the November 2013 attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
Ambassador Stevens was promoting every manner of educational and commercial interaction with Libya, from hundreds of Fulbright applications to a children's health training program that he was scheduled to address in Benghazi on 12th of September 2012. Chris was not allowed to keep that appointment, but the remarkable Stevens family, which includes a Chris's sister, Anne, a highly respected pediatric doctor and researcher accomplished that some months later in Chris' memory.
Diplomacy and international business, like domestic investment and networking, is informed not only by serious strategic study and cultivated intelligence, but also by personal experience. This is another reason why the State Department should keep our Libyan embassy personnel close by. What does my experience tell me about the people of Libya: that they are welcoming and hard-working. Numerous encounters might be recalled here, but let me mention a few of these personal vignettes that stand out in my memory.
First, my eldest son before entering law practice and following a rigorous clerkship on the U.S. Supreme Court devoted some considerable time to assessing civil justice structures throughout Africa, including Libya, for various NGOs. His experience in Libya as a blond-haired, unmistakably American visitor was one of being received with friendly assistance and openness. As the timing of his visit was a year or so before the uprising, Gaddafi's minions and narcissistic presence was everywhere. That presence, of course, did not permit the kind of total candor and informal banter that we might associate with a conversation at the corner Starbucks; nonetheless, with some courageous disregard for their own safety, the Libyans revealed to my visiting son, a healthy distaste for the arbitrariness and unpredictability of Gaddafi's rule. Gaddafi's "little green book," reminiscent in all but color of Chairman Mao's similar propaganda was silently tolerated, but mocked.
My son's experience with the Libyan people matched my own.
Libya is a country that encourages the flourishing of intellectual talent by making good use of material without becoming materialistic. Unfortunately, while U.S. Ambassador, I was briefly sidelined by a surgery needed to restore my health. One of the most caring members of the diplomatic corps who consistently inquired of my well-being was the Libyan Ambassador. When I complimented his thoughtfulness, the Ambassador tried to pass it off as a proprietary duty as the particular Maltese hospital had Libyan ownership, but I knew better. The very same Libyan Ambassador had been a highly trusted linguist for a decade at the UN. He held a Ph.D from IU-Bloomington and was a poet of the first rank whose poetry even after translation conveys it's moving sentiment perfectly.
In the words of those poems and the kindness of that Libyan Ambassador, one can see the profound potential of the Libyan people if given decent and regular opportunity. This potential is anchored most clearly in the poignant and impressive perseverance of a people and of a country suffocated for two score year by a tyrant who prided himself on playing America and Europe against itself -- Gaddafi alternately being seen as the an-untamed and un-tamable bully or a bully capable of being pacified which, as it turns out, is a foreign-policy built upon the specious notion that the "enemy of my enemy is my friend."
The promise of the Arab Spring is not lost but it depends upon a consistent rejection -- in the same way that we reject negotiating with terrorists -- of the false notion that stability can be provided by a tyrant who actively and selfishly denies the freedom of others. Whether in Egypt (where we have not evacuated) or Libya (where we have), or anywhere else on the globe, peace based on suppression is a chimera. Indeed, to allow ourselves to be taken in by such expediency would be the greatest and gravest threat to our own freedom and well-being, and in complete disregard of what we know of the Libyan people by experience.