President Obama nominated a career diplomat and Middle East expert as the next US ambassador to Libya Wednesday, six months after a terrorist attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, that took the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The White House announced that the president was nominating Deborah Jones, a former ambassador to Kuwait and currently a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, to fill the vacancy left at the top of the US Embassy in Tripoli after Ambassador Stevens and three other American officials were killed in the Sept. 11 assault on the Benghazi mission.
If confirmed by the Senate for the Libya post, Ambassador Jones would take on a diplomatic position associated with both a success and perhaps the most searing failing of Mr. Obama’s first-term foreign policy.
Faced with a looming bloodbath of Libyan civilians in Benghazi as forces of Col. Muammar Qaddafi closed in on the eastern opposition stronghold in the spring of 2011, Obama ordered US participation in an international intervention that checked Mr. Qaddafi’s advances in his battle with opposition forces.
By October 2011 the Qaddafi regime was finished, the mercurial leader killed by a mob of opposition fighters.
Less than a year later Benghazi would become a symbol of anti-American sentiment in a roiling Middle East. The shifting forces shaping the “Arab Spring” became all the more alarming after Stevens, who was first named a special envoy to the Libyan opposition in Benghazi in 201l, was killed in a firebombing of the US’s Benghazi mission a year later.
Stevens was the first US ambassador killed on the job since 1979.
Republicans in Congress launched investigations into the Benghazi debacle both before and after the November presidential election, accusing the White House of covering up the administration’s failure to respond to Stevens’ requests for beefed up diplomatic security in Libya.
Republicans also blasted the administration for initially attributing the attack on the mission to a mob of demonstrators expressing their fury over an anti-Islam video produced in the US.
Stevens, who had made on his own the decision to travel to a Benghazi he felt he knew well, would also come to symbolize the tensions inherent in 21st century diplomacy, where public contact is considered all the more necessary, even as it has become – at least in some regions of the world – all the more dangerous.
Jones served as ambassador to Kuwait from 2008-2011. In this new assignment, she would also be taking on the challenge of Libya’s ungoverned zones, where Islamist extremists – some known to be affiliated with Al Qaeda – have seized arms left by the Qaddafi regime and taken advantage of unprotected borders to move around and operate in neighboring countries, including Algeria and on into Mali.
The veteran diplomat has kept a low profile since returning to Washington after her Kuwait assignment, perhaps purposefully avoiding the kind of controversy that could doom future diplomatic prospects.
But Jones did offer some insight into her views on the reasons for the Arab world’s political upheaval – and on the question of how long US officials have sensed that change in the region was inevitable – when she moderated a Middle East Institute panel last November on a Middle East in transition.
Jones showed few cards in moderating the discussion, but she did relate a discussion that she said two well-placed sources told her occurred when now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited then-President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2005.
President Bush told President Mubarak that the US appreciated how Egypt under his rule was a pillar of stability, but according to Jones Bush also told Mubarak “something he felt very strongly about,” and that was that the Egyptian people were becoming “restless,” she said, and would cause Mubarak “trouble down the road” if he did not begin meaningful political reforms.
To which Mubarak, according to Jones’s two sources, responded by putting his hand on Bush’s arm and saying, “Thank you, George, but you don’t know the Egyptian people.”
Jones’s commentary on that quote? “Well, somebody didn’t know the Egyptian people.”