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The Road from Benghazi

POMONA – Last year, on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, an assault on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, led to the deaths of four American diplomats, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The attack, which caused the US government to cancel public-diplomacy programs, evacuate offices, and tighten security substantially, was a massive setback for American diplomatic efforts in Libya.

At the time, I was the public affairs officer at the US embassy in Tripoli, responsible for strengthening US-Libyan ties, which were minimal, at best, during Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. Libya’s new government allowed me access to civil-society actors – including journalists, academics, writers, activists, and representatives of minority groups – who were off limits to US diplomats under Qaddafi’s regime.

These interactions revealed that most Libyans hold positive views of the US, owing to America’s support for Libya’s 2011 revolution. Given this, the US seemed to have a tremendous opportunity to build strong bilateral ties, nurture robust people-to-people connections, reduce the appeal of extremism, and contribute to capacity-building in many areas, including security.

After the Benghazi attacks, I grieved not only for my fallen colleagues, but also for the loss of the chance to deepen a relationship that had, in Qaddafi’s final years, consisted mainly of counterterrorism efforts, limited commercial relations, and historical issues, such as the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Stevens, who championed a more comprehensive approach, would have been devastated to witness the fortress that the US embassy became after his death.