Common Ground Awards in Honor of the Late Ambassador Chris Stevens
Secretary of State
The video below is available with closed captioning on YouTube
It’s a special privilege and honor to have Chris’s sister Anne with us tonight. This has been for everyone a very difficult, personal ordeal. But of course, for Chris’s family, it has been so much more. They grieve and they remember. And they have shown such grace and dignity in the weeks since they were thrust into the harsh spotlight of history.
In the rush of headlines, it is easy to forget that at the center of this national tragedy was such a real person, with passion and principles, with humor and irony, with ambition and humility, with friends and colleagues and loved ones.
Chris Stevens was a son of the West. He hiked and jogged and danced his way through the hills and forests of northern California, and then he did it in Libya. He loved the cool, refreshing fog of the Bay Area, the sight of the Golden Gate, and the warm embrace of his family. But his family gave him not only roots but wings. And he shared the restless soul of the frontier. His mother liked to say that he had sand in his shoes, always moving and running and working, seeking out new challenges and adventures. And there was music in his life. The son of a cellist, he himself played the saxophone, which, of course, for me – (laughter). Friends in Jerusalem remember his passion for Palestinian songs, as he would serenade them in Arabic.
When Chris first took the Foreign Service exam in college, he was asked to compare American democracy with the freewheeling energy of jazz. One of his closest friends, Steve McDonald, remembers spending hours discussing the question, about experimentation and improvisation, about the relationship between a brilliant soloist and a band that all have to pull together to achieve harmony. Later, Steve would come to think of Chris as a jazz diplomat. That really resonates with anyone who ever worked with or knew Chris, who saw his creativity and inspiration up close.
Jazz musicians like to talk about playing the changes. Their art lies in the space between structure and spontaneity. Yes, they do master the technique, but then they begin to improvise. And that is how Chris worked. A young Foreign Service officer who was with him in Libya marveled at Chris’s appetite for history and culture. He stayed up late reading memoirs of former Libyan leaders and delighted in sharing obscure historical trivia and cracking jokes not just in Arabic but in the local dialect.
Other colleagues remember his endless patience and talent for listening, two characteristics that really are required to be a successful diplomat. As one of Chris’s friends explained recently, you develop a relationship and a personal connection, and a series of connections become a network. Many Americans, well, we start at A and work down the list to F. But A to B is not a straight line, and Chris had an instinctive feel for this, how to get things done. He understood not just the science of diplomacy but the art. He heard the music and the words. And he was committed to his mission of helping others find their own freedom.
He found a second home amidst the shifting deserts and crowded cities of the Middle East. He climbed the Atlas Mountains, he wandered through Syrian souks, he jogged through Libyan olive groves. And he had so many moments of common ground.
When the revolution broke out in Libya, I asked Chris to travel to Benghazi. And he did so on a Greek cargo ship, like a 19th century envoy. It certainly appealed to his romantic side. But his work was very much 21st century hardnosed diplomacy and relationship building. Even when a bomb exploded in the parking lot of the hotel where he was staying, he never wavered.
Chris would have been the first to say that the terrorists who attacked our mission in Benghazi on September 11th did not represent the millions of Libyans who want peace and deplore violence. You saw and you heard the President’s inspired and inspiring words about that. Chris understood that most people, in Libya or anywhere, reject the extremist arguments that violence and death are the only way to reclaim dignity and achieve justice. He understood that’s why he was in Libya, and there was no substitute for going beyond the Embassy walls, building relationships, and finding common ground. He also knew that when America is absent, especially from the dangerous places, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened.
The State Department sends people to more than 275 posts in 170 countries around the world. Chris understood that diplomats must operate in many places where soldiers do not, where there are no other boots on the ground, and security is far from guaranteed. And he volunteered for those kinds of assignments. He understood that we will never prevent every act of terrorism or achieve perfect security in this world, and that our diplomats cannot work in bunkers and do their jobs, that we inevitably must accept a level of risk to protect our country, a country we love, and to advance our interests and values.
Of course, it is also our responsibility to constantly improve, to reduce the risks our people face, to make sure they have the resources they need to do what we ask of them. And nobody takes that more seriously than I do, and the security professionals at the State Department. We now have a formal Accountability Review Board investigating the terrorist attack that killed Chris, and we will certainly apply its recommendations and lessons learned to improving security everywhere. It’s appropriate that we do so based on facts and evidence. Chris’s family, his colleagues at the Department, and the American people deserve nothing less.
As that process moves forward, though, we are taking immediate steps to bolster security and readiness. We’ve dispatched teams, joint teams from the Department of State and Defense, to review high-threat posts to determine whether there are other improvements we need in light of the evolving security challenges we now face.
The men and women who serve our country overseas represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation, and they are no strangers to danger. From Tehran and Beirut to Islamabad, East Africa, and Saudi Arabia, and now in Benghazi, and many other places in between over the years, we have seen our diplomats devoted to peace targeted by terrorists devoted to death. But we cannot, indeed we must not, be intimidated. We have to remain focused and clear in our vision of the kind of world we seek to build.
Chris Stevens was an inspiration to all who served with him and knew him during his life. He remains an inspiration now and I believe far into the future, because he exemplified the best of what we stand for, who we are as a people. And he believed in the search for common ground.
So we thank you for recognizing this brave and good man, this consummate diplomat, this American hero. And now please join me in welcoming Anne Stevens to the stage. (Applause.)