The United Nations marked the death of U.S. Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, and two other American nationals in Benghazi, Libya, with the customary expressions of condolence invoked when a U.N. member state endures a national tragedy.
The U.N. Security Council duly condemned the "heinous" murder of the American diplomatic delegation. A "saddened" U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered his condolences to the United States government and the "bereaved Libyan and American families." And other council diplomats expressed their somber regrets at the untimely murder of colleagues.
But this time, the killing struck closer to home. U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who served until recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, was a close personal friend and colleague of Stevens at the U.S. State Department.
The U.N. Security Council had played a vital role in shielding Benghazi's residents from certain slaughter at the hands of Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces. In a rare, brief show of unity, the Security Council authorized NATO to use air power against Libyan forces, a move that until led to Qaddafi's overthrow.
The U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the U.S. embassy in Cairo both came under attack from mobs that had allegedly become enraged over the circulation on the Internet of an inflammatory film produced by a man in California who claimed in an interview with the Associated Press that he was an Israeli filmmaker. (The AP has raised questions about his true nationality) But U.S. officials said that the attack in Benghazi may have been planned by extremists inspired by al Qaeda, according to a report in the Washington Post.
After the attack, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked the question that was on the minds of many of the U.N.'s Western diplomats. "How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?" she said. "This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be."
Speaking outside the U.N. Security Council, Libya's U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi conveyed his own government's condolences to the United States and the families of the dead, saying that Stevens had "been a real friend for the Libyan people."
Stevens, he added, "was with us during our fighting against the dictator Qaddafi and his forces. He was very brave in staying in Benghazi."
Dabbashi was at a lost to explain how the ambassador of a government that had supported Libya's liberation could become a target. "As you know, we have to state the reality: the authority of the government is still not covering the whole territory of Libya."
Dabbashi said his government would take "the necessary measures to contain those people ... and bring them to justice." He said that as many as 10 Libyan security forces were either injured or killed during the attack.
Inside the council, the mood was somber as Rosemary di Carlo, the U.S. deputy permanent representative, read out an account of the attack and requested support for a U.S.-drafted Security Council statement condemning the attack. Russia and other delegations that have frequently criticized U.S. backed initiatives on Libya were silent, according to a council diplomat. "Even the hardliners were subdued," the diplomat said. "I think nobody wanted to be in Rosemary's shoes, talking about the death of a colleague."
"The senselessness of if was striking," the official said. "This was not a war; these were people who had committed themselves to the well being of the Libyan people."
But the attack also raised concern among other diplomats about the future of their efforts in Libya, and the persistent diplomatic risks. In April, unidentified attackers targeted a convoy transporting the U.N.'s special representative, Ian Martin, with a roadside bomb. In June, armed groups attacked a British convoy carrying Britain's ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith. The British envoy was not armed, but two British bodyguards were injured.
For now, it remains unclear what impact, if any, Stevens' death will have on the future of the U.N. mission in Libya. "It is too soon to assess the implications for our future posture -- our policy has been to keep a low profile," said one senior U.N. official. Restoring stability in Libya, the official said, will depend on the effectiveness of the country's new prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, who won by a slim margin in a vote today. "The events in Benghazi showed everybody that there are still a lot of challenges out there," said the council diplomat.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.