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Mourning a Diplomat Who Had the Right Stuff


UN Volunteer Eric Oyuyo (centre) works with fishermen along Ogal Beach on Lake Victoria.
Eric Oyuyo, center, a UN volunteer, works with fishermen trying to make a living on Lake Victoria in Kisumu, Kenya. US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died on Sept. 11, 2012, in Libya, had begun his career as a Peace Corps volunteer. DOMINIC NAHR/ MAGNUM PHOTO/ UNV, 2011

The United States House Homeland Security Committee chairman called for Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, to resign. A top-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee derided “Benghazi-gate,” the name he uses in charging a cover-up of the facts surrounding the Sept. 11 deaths this year in Libya of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues.

In the vice-presidential debate this month, the opening question focused on supposedly conflicting statements by Rice and other Obama officials about what happened in Benghazi. During the second presidential debate, the president cited the transcript of his remarks on the morning after the killings. One organization even demanded that CNN fire the moderator for backing Obama’s citation.

Only weeks before the Congressional and presidential elections, a single foreign policy event has elbowed its way on stage alongside the economy, taxes and Obamacare. Tonight’s debate on foreign policy promises more of the same.

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Meanwhile, many members of Peace Corps nation – the 200,000 Americans who have completed their service abroad – quietly salute Stevens, proud of a fellow volunteer who distinguished himself in the US foreign service. Last month, two Peace Corps volunteers serving in Morocco visited Ouaouizerth, the town where Stevens taught high school almost 30 years ago. One of the volunteers, Melanie Kondrat, wrote of her conversations with people who vividly remembered Stevens and now mourn his death.

Kondrat writes, “Ouaouizerth is settled in a valley of sorts, surrounded 360 degrees by mountains and rolling hills, nestled a few kilometers from the shores of the region’s lake Bin El Ouidane. The descent into Ouaouizerth is tree lined like out of a storybook and it’s not difficult to imagine why Stevens would’ve loved this area so much.”

She describes how Stevens was well loved by the Moroccans he knew. One teacher, for example, traced his own career back to being inspired by Stevens, his Peace Corps teacher in high school. Over tea, the instructor said, “Any qualities that were good” – Stevens “had it.”

Others noted that on Fridays he played basketball with his students. But most other days he would jog, always wearing a track suit and not shorts, careful to respect the dress standards of the community. They said that Stevens was not interested in himself, that he devoted all his time to teaching and learning Moroccan Arabic, carrying a notebook in his back pocket to write new words down and practice them.

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens of Libya
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens of Libya, who was killed in a terrorist act on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi. Stevens was a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.

Even after Stevens died, thousands of Libyan locals demonstrated against the heavy-weapons attack that hit the US compounds in Benghazi on Sept.11. Some protestors carried placards denouncing his killing. One placard proclaimed, “We demand justice for Stevens.” Another said, “Libya lost a friend.” Fluent in Arabic, Stevens clearly endeared himself to those he met and mingled with as America’s ambassador to a fledgling government and the Libyan people.

But here’s the saddest part. Stevens’s Peace Corps training and experience must have enhanced his natural talents and helped him become such a model diplomat. It’s that aspect of his life that is being overlooked, swept aside, as the political firestorm against the White House refuses to grow cold.

Does this focus actually honor the memory of Stevens? If politicians are unable to restrain their partisan attacks, who remains willing to learn and share more about Stevens’s Peace Corps experience and the skills he acquired in his career in the Foreign Service? When can the focus be put on Stevens as a young volunteer and later as a seasoned diplomat and how he worked so effectively with people of vastly different cultures?

By refocusing on that aspect of his short but noteworthy life, other Peace Corps volunteers, returning after their experiences abroad, might be inspired to follow in his footsteps. More people may pick up the banner of democracy that fell with Stevens and go on to plant it in other lands where our US Foreign Service officers work. Or perhaps they may even become encouraged to become international diplomats working under the UN flag or at UN headquarters. Some may consider joining United Nations Volunteers, a long-running program that sends experts into the field for a year or two to use their abilities in assisting UN agencies that need them most.

As we stayed tuned for tonight’s presidential debate, will Stevens’s death be Topic A again? What matters most is that in evoking his name, he should receive the highest regard.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Tino Calabia began his humanitarian work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s and then ran a Bronx antipoverty agency and wrote numerous federal studies ranging from the rights of female offenders to racial discrimination on college campuses. He has served on national Asian American boards and organized seminars in former Eastern-bloc countries for exchange students he mentored while they lived in the United States.

Calabia has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, attended the University of Munich on a foreign-exchange fellowship and has a master’s degree in English and American literature from Columbia University. He lives in the Washington area with his wife, Dawn Calabia, who is an honorary adviser to Refugees International.

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