WASHINGTON — At the height of Libya's civil war, Chris Stevens dashed off to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi by cargo boat to help shape an assortment of Libyan politicians and militias into the cohesive unit that would defeat Moammar Gadhafi. A year-and-a-half later, the 52-year-old ambassador died as Islamists attacked a U.S. consulate in the same city.
Stevens' death deprives the United States of someone widely regarded as one of the most effective American envoys to the Arab world. In his unfailingly polite and friendly manner, Stevens brokered tribal disputes and conducted U.S. outreach efforts in Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus and Riyadh. As a rising star in U.S. foreign policy, he cheerily returned to Libya four months ago, determined to see a democracy rise where Gadhafi's dictatorship for four decades flourished.
"It's especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save," President Barack Obama said from the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday. "With characteristic skill, courage and resolve he built partnerships with Libyan revolutionaries and helped them as they planned to build a new Libya."
Stevens was among four Americans who died Tuesday night after the consulate was attacked by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
A native of Northern California, he was dispatched to Benghazi in the midst of heavy fighting in April 2011, ferrying to the city on a Greek cargo ship to set up America's central office for coordinating military strategy, financial assistance and political work with the Libyan opposition.
What he encountered was a largely lawless coast, threatened by Gadhafi offensives and short of funds for food, fuel and medicine. Security was a constant concern, he recounted in an August 2011 news conference, but he stressed that Gadhafi's time was running out.
He was right. The war ended shortly after an angry mob killed Gadhafi in late October 2011, but not before Stevens played a critical role in coaxing Libya's disparate rebel and opposition groups into becoming the cohesive military and political force that the world would recognize as Libya's legitimate government. Colleagues and foreign officials recalled an impeccably polite and good-natured diplomat with an uncanny ability for winning friends.
"He was loved by everybody," said Ahmed al-Abbar, a Libyan opposition leader during the revolution.
As Libya's post-war challenges persisted, Stevens jumped at the opportunity earlier this year when Obama asked him to be the next U.S. ambassador in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. A couple of weeks before his departure, he was a guest of The Associated Press at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner and spoke of his eagerness to get to work.
"It's a really exciting time for Libya," he said, and stressed that he would stay in touch. Libya's difficult transition to democracy needed to remain in the public consciousness and not simply disappear under the category of missions accomplished, he explained.
Fathi Baja, another former member of Libya's National Transitional Council, said he met with Stevens on Tuesday morning in Tripoli and saw the ambassador working on securing top Libyan officials with invitations to the next U.S. presidential inauguration. He also was trying to send more Libyan students to study in the U.S. and attract American business to the North African country, Baja said, part of an effort to strengthen U.S.-Libyan relations after they veered from badly damaged to nonexistent under Gadhafi.
Obama described Stevens as a "role model to all who worked with him and to the young diplomats who aspire to walk in his footsteps."
"He risked his life to stop a tyrant then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the State Department. "The world needs more Chris Stevenses."
Obama and Clinton gathered with officials in a courtyard of the State Department, expressing their condolences and comforting those who worked closely with Stevens. The president could be seen telling several people he was sorry for their loss.
Stevens is the sixth U.S. ambassador to be killed on duty. The last was Adolph Dubs, in Afghanistan in 1979. While Stevens may have represented the next generation of so-called Arabists — diplomats steeped in the culture and traditions of the Muslim world — he was no pinstripe-suited bureaucrat cut of the Foggy Bottom stereotype. He cherished field work, and disarmed colleagues with his adventurousness and humility even as his reputation rose.
Stevens came from a family of doctors and lawyers, but showed an early interest in foreign policy. At Piedmont High School near Oakland, Calif., he served as editor of the school newspaper and was active in the Model U.N. club.
"What a bore it is, waking up in the morning always the same person," said his quote in the 1978 high school yearbook. "I wish I were unflinching and emphatic and had big eyebrows and a Message for the Age."
Following his father, Jan Stevens, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1982. He then volunteered for the Peace Corps as an English teacher for two years in a remote village in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains — "and quickly fell in love with this part of the world." Still, his next step was a law degree from the University of California's Hastings College of Law in 1989 and employment as a trade attorney in Washington.
One day, said a former colleague recounting Stevens' retelling of the story, the young lawyer put his head down at his desk and said to himself, "I can't do this anymore." He decided then to apply for the Foreign Service, joining in 1991.
Stevens, who by now spoke French and some Arabic, had early postings in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel and Egypt — where he often camped in the Sinai Peninsula and regularly beat his superiors in tennis matches. He worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., from 2006 to 2007, where he presented himself as a political centrist in an office with several partisan conservatives. He also was remembered as a self-effacing bachelor with a wry sense of humor who drank beer, dated women and liked outdoor sports.
"He was a normal guy, not like some of the nerds from the State Department who can't relate with people," said Thomas Moore, a fellow Lugar staffer, who recalled Stevens buying a Toyota Land Cruiser just before heading to Libya for his first stint, as deputy chief of mission in 2007.
At the State Department, he had a similar reputation for being non-ideological. UC law professor David Levine, who stayed in touch with Stevens after teaching him basic litigation in his first year at Hastings, recalled Stevens' admiration of Thomas Pickering, President George H.W. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, whom he worked under as a Middle East staffer.
"The people who he worked with were on the 'Let's engage the world,' rather than 'Let's bully the world' side of things," Levine said.
But Stevens didn't pull his punches with Gadhafi. As the embassy No. 2, he built an extensive network of contacts with Libya's eastern tribes that would serve him well later. At the same time, he wrote several confidential cables back to Washington describing the Libyan leader's bizarre behavior. In a 2009 cable, he concludes that U.S. engagement efforts remained at the mercy of Gadhafi's "mercurial inner circle"; in others, he predicts "tumult" as Gadhafi's children maneuver to succeed him.
Condoleezza Rice, who was secretary of state for part of that time, called Stevens a "wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat who was dedicated to the cause of freedom."
"His service in the Middle East throughout his career was legendary," she said.
In a YouTube video just before leaving for Libya to take up his latest post of ambassador, Stevens said he was "thrilled to watch the Libyan people stand up and demand their rights" during the revolution. "I'm excited to return to Libya to continue the great work we've started, building a solid partnership between the United States and Libya to help you, the Libyan people, achieve your goals."
Obama stressed that Stevens' death wouldn't end that effort.
"This attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya," the president vowed.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Garance Burke and Terence Chea in San Francisco contributed to this report.