STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
United States ambassadors do not always have a close connection to the countries where they serve. Sometimes, the ambassadors are friends of an American president. Sometimes, they're career diplomats who have posted to many countries over the years.
Ambassador Chris Stevens, however, had a history with Libya. He had been the U.S. envoy to Libyan rebels who rose up against Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. He was liked and respected there, and he returned in 2012 as the formal ambassador to the new Libyan government. So it is especially striking that it was in Libya that Ambassador Stevens was killed yesterday. The United States government has confirmed that this morning.
He was killed when a mob attacked a U.S. consulate in the city of Benghazi. He was one of four Americans killed. We do have one other name of a victim: Sean Smith. The U.S. government is waiting to reveal the other two names until the families can be notified.
We're going to talk about this act and its consequences with Robin Wright. She is a journalist, author, foreign policy expert on the Middle East and Islam, and a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Robin, welcome back to the program.
ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: How did you know Ambassador Stevens?
WRIGHT: Well, I've known Chris for 25 years. He is one of the really talented U.S. envoys who knew the region so very well. He knew the streets, as well as the elites. He spoke the language. He understood the culture. He was one of those who got out and really knew a cross-section of whatever community he lived in.
I knew him first when he was at the consulate in Jerusalem, and he worked with the Palestinians. And, you know, he saw all three phases of Libya. He served two years in Tripoli during Gadhafi's rule, and then he went, as you pointed out, to Benghazi and headed the U.S. office - liaison office to the National Transition Counsel during the uprising against Gadhafi, and then he went back.
And he - I was at his swearing-in ceremony this spring, and he had such an extraordinary enthusiasm about this painful and awkward transition, because he understood the extraordinary moment of history in the region.
INSKEEP: I'm dwelling on that moment, enthusiasm, because this was a moment of dread for some foreign policy experts, not knowing what would happen. But he was grabbing an opportunity.
WRIGHT: And he really got it, and that was the beauty of Chris. He was such a dedicated envoy. He was the very finest of American diplomats from a generation that often didn't get out on the streets as much as they should or would like to because of security. But Chris really got out and knew this, understood what was happening and all the things that had to go in to create a new order. He understood it was more than just an election, that it was about writing new constitutions and - in Libya's case - disarming militias and providing employment, dealing with the economic hardships of transition.
INSKEEP: Some U.S. ambassadors can be tremendously influential. Some are frustrated. How important - as far as you can tell from the outside - was Ambassador Stevens to shaping the new Libya?
WRIGHT: Well, because of the U.S. role and NATO's intervention in Libya, there was a real affection, I think, for Americans in Libya in a way that there hasn't been in some other countries. And I think Chris had a particular legitimacy because of his experience on the ground, his wide knowledge of the key players. And he was seen as someone who was incredibly influential, both in shaping U.S. policy in Libya, but also in trying to create a different kind of relationship, you know, with a country that has been our nemesis for decades.
INSKEEP: Now, this leads to another question, Robin Wright, which gets to the nature of the attack, not only in Libya, but the assault on the U.S. embassy in Cairo yesterday. Libyans, in particular, as you say, had warm feelings toward the United States, had reason to have warm feelings to the United States, which does raise a question: Why would it be that the spreading of a video - because we are told that clips from a film that depicts the Prophet Muhammad in an offensive way were spreading through the Middle East, that that was the reason for the attack. Why would clips from a video then inspire large numbers of people to mount an armed attack on an American facility?
WRIGHT: Well, we do know the full details of what happened in Benghazi. We do know what happened and is continuing to happen in Cairo, and that is that some ultra-conservative groups known as Salafis have mobilized protests at the American embassy in Cairo because of this film clip.
The Salafis are the real cause of concern during the transitions in the Middle East. They've become increasingly popular. They emerged almost out of nowhere a year, a year and a half ago. They had traditionally been apolitical. But they, in some ways, are like al-Qaida in the sense that the want to take societies back to the early years of the - after the creation of Islam in the 7th century and model 21st century society on the patterns in the 7th century. And they are advocating purity and independence from outside influence, particularly the West.
INSKEEP: Really important point here, Robin Wright, that I want to make sure that I'm clear on. You said at the beginning there we don't know precisely what happened in Libya. Based on the information that you're trying to sift, as everyone else is, is it not clear to you what the motivation might really have been in Libya?
WRIGHT: In Libya, you have the additional problem of an al-Qaida affiliate, some extremists who have been very active, or increasingly active, as well - very small. But, you know, there are multiple types of players in Libya, and we need to be very careful in this sensitive period, understanding who are perpetrators and the fact that they probably do not represent the majority of people, whether it's in Libya or in Egypt.
INSKEEP: OK. So we're going to be extremely careful in describing motivations, here. Let me ask about one other thing, before I let you go. You mentioned that Ambassador Chris Stevens - who was killed in this attack, along with three other Americans - was different than some diplomats, because in spite of security concerns, he got out. He talked to people. And you know - from dealing with U.S. diplomats over the years - how difficult that can be because of the security restrictions that are imposed. What happens to the U.S. diplomatic community around the world when one of their own is attacked like this?
WRIGHT: Well, first of all, I think you're going see increased security at every embassy and consulate in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. And the security is a particularly sensitive point, and it's the greatest challenge, in some ways, for American diplomats, because it hinders their mission. But the fact that both of these attacks in Cairo and Benghazi happened on the anniversary of 9-11 will also kind of expand the importance of this and make it, perhaps, more haunting in its impact on what the U.S. decides to do. But the danger is that this film clip has an infectious effect across the region.
INSKEEP: Got to stop you there. Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center, thank you very much.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.