U.S. Ambassador to Libya murdered during assault on American consulate in Benghazi

Yesterday we wrote,

Foreign policy is not really an issue, at least not yet, in the campaign. Most Americans seem to have tuned out the world. Even momentous events, such as the civil war in Syria, or Iran’s progress on the road to nuclear weapons and the potential Israeli and U.S. responses, seem to be of little interest in most of the country.

Such statements, like Barack Obama’s strategy of keeping foreign policy out of the presidential campaign in 2012, are always subject to unexpected developments abroad, out there in the world beyond the campaign.

The murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya during a deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last night may have been such a development, injecting the world and U.S. foreign policy directly into the presidential race. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has already criticized the State Department for its initial statement, which he has also sought to link to the broader theme that Obama has been a weak foreign policy leader, without resolve.

The timing was inauspicious for Obama, coming on September 11, exactly 11 years after the the attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan and on the Pentagon, and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 which resulted in the deaths in Shanksville, Pennsylvania of the 40 passengers and four hijackers on board when the plane crashed.

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi during violent demonstrations at the consulate and what US. officials now believe was a premeditated attack.

See

Peter Baker, David D. Kirkpatrick, and Alan Cowell, “U.S. Suspects Libya Attack Was Planned,” New York Times, September 12, 2012.

The deadly attack on the U.S. consulate when the U.S. ambassador was there signals a dramatic intelligence failure on the part of U.S. officials, and presumably Libyan officials as well. The New York Times reports,

Officials in Washington said no warning had been distributed inside the United States government in the days before the assault on the consulate, either on the possibility of an attack to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary or more specifically that a plot might be afoot in Libya. That suggests that American intelligence was not picking up unusual communications or other evidence pointing to a planned attack.

The exact manner in which Ambassador was killed was the subject of different accounts. According to the Times,

An unidentified Libyan official in Benghazi told Reuters that Mr. Stevens and three staff members were killed in Benghazi “when gunmen fired rockets at them.” It was not clear where in the city the attack took place. The Libyan official said the ambassador was being driven from the consulate building to a safer location when gunmen opened fire, Reuters said.

Agence France-Presse quoted the Libyan Interior Ministry as saying that Mr. Stevens and the three staff members were killed when a mob attacked the consulate in Benghazi. Al Jazeera’s English-language Web site said Mr. Stevens died of smoke inhalation after a mob set fire to the building, and a Libyan physician who treated Mr. Stevens at the hospital was quoted by The Associated Press as saying he had tried to revive him for 90 minutes.

In Italy, the Web site of the newspaper Corriere della Sera showed images of what it said was the American Consulate in Benghazi ablaze with men carrying automatic rifles and waving V-for-victory signs, silhouetted against the burning buildings. One photograph showed a man closely resembling Mr. Stevens apparently unconscious, his face seeming to be smudged with smoke and his eyes closed.

Regarding the other victims, the Times reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had identified “Sean Smith, an information management officer who joined the Foreign Service 10 years ago,” as a second victim. The identities of the other two victims were being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

It is not clear whether Romney’s very quick criticism of the Obama administration at the precise moment the country received a severe blow from terrorists would help him or hurt him in the fall campaign. It does suggest, however, that Romney intends to make foreign policy a major issue in the presidential race.  There have also been reports that  Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has engaged in some kind of coordination with the Romney campaign. Netanyahu has had a longstanding, close relationship since 1976, according to reports.

See

Philip Rucker and Debbi Wilgoren, “Romney repeats sharp criticism of Obama after Benghazi, Cairo attacks,” Washington Post, September 12, 2012.

Peter Baker, “Embassy Attacks Fuel Escalation in U.S. Presidential Race,” New York Times, September 12, 2012.

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was a professional diplomat, fluent in French and Arabic and with broad experience in the Middle East, who had previously served as the U.S. envoy to the Libyan resistance movement.  He was precisely the kind of professional diplomat the United States needs to have posted in sensitive posts in the Arab world. He will be sorely missed.

See

Steven Lee Meyers, “For Veteran Envoy, Return to Libya Was Full of Hope,” New York Times, September 12, 2012.

“Obituary: J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, dies at 52,” Washington Post, September 12, 2012 (Tara Bahrampour and Julie Tate contributed to this report).

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"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.