Washington — Chris Stevens exemplified the kind of "boots on the ground" diplomacy that many experts say the United States must practice more. He arrived in Benghazi, Libya, last year aboard a cargo ship to open up shop as the US envoy to the rebels fighting Muammar Qaddafi.
The sandy-haired diplomat known for his easy smile continued practicing his people-oriented version of foreign policy when he took up his posting as US ambassador to a newly democratic Libya in May.
At a reception in Tripoli in August marking the reopening of consular affairs and a return to issuing US visas to Libyans, Ambassador Stevens told The Tripoli Post, "Relationships between governments are important, but relationships between people are the real foundation of mutual understanding."
Stevens was killed in an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi last month, a tragedy that demonstrated the perils that can accompany a new diplomacy that puts US officials in closer contact with the people who, as Stevens saw it, matter as much as a country's leaders in 21st-century diplomacy.
The former Peace Corps volunteer enthusiastically experimented with the social media he felt could draw him closer to the people whose freedom he had championed. In a sad irony, the expansion of instant global communication would also play a part in his death.
In a YouTube video he posted on the website of the US Embassy in Tripoli before his arrival, Stevens says "Salaam Alaikum!" ("Peace to you," a traditional Arabic greeting) from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and tells Libyans that as ambassador he will help build "a solid partnership between the United States and Libya to help you, the Libyan people, achieve your goals."
He notes that, like Libyans, Americans once lived through a civil war and went on to build a stronger nation of greater freedom and opportunity, and he says the US will help Libya do the same.
It would be another YouTube video, this one an offensive spoof of the life of the prophet Muhammad, filmed in California, that would enrage many Muslims in a number of Arab countries, including Libya, and play a role in the Benghazi attack that led to Stevens's death.
In a statement eulogizing Stevens, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that from the day he arrived in Benghazi last year, Stevens had "risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation."
Throughout his too-short career as a diplomat, she said, "Chris was committed to advancing America's values and interests, even when that meant putting himself in danger."