Friday, September 14, 2012


In 1805, Captain William Eaton captured Derna, the second city of Libya, after Captain Stephen Decatur had sailed right into Tripoli harbor. Under Jefferson's  pressure against the Barbary powers (Algeria, Morocco and Tunis) the coalition, led by the pasha of Tripoli, crumbled.  For the first time the Americans had waged battle on a foreign shore.  Since then, the Americans have a long-standing dysfunctional relationship with the Arab world, culminating in the 9/11 tragedy which once and forever maybe mixed the good and the bad Muslim in the same cauldron. When I was ambassador to Egypt I experienced more good than bad but I could not fail to notice how literal adhesion to a mindset/religion stood more often than not in the way of a more factual, cool disagreement.  As soon as Islam appeared, the sheep became a wolf.

The killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi is the first since Adolph Dubbs was killed in Afghanistan in 1979. This death is at the same time not different from that of the poor dislodged coalition soldiers who are killed in Afghanistan, where yet again foe and friend interlope. Tragedies exist by themselves. Strangely, they end up creating identical graves which remain mute, indifferent to both the ceremonial and the silence.

Most are familiar with the humanity of the slain envoy. Many Libyans appreciated his culture and professionalism. In this he is an example and symbol for what an ambassador should be.  He represented all that the forces of the obscure hate: enlightenment, analytical virtuosity, approachability. The attack is linked to an amateurish YouTube irresponsible brainchild of a still veiled madman, who by gratuitously spewing a grotesque representation of the prophet insulted millions of Muslims, endangering at the same time the lives of men and women in harm's way.  He is in reality almost Osama's pathetic miscarriage, in the opposite camp.

Embassies burn, Americans run, others will follow. Besides, despite the fact that sorrow has no favourites, it has to be recognized that the the death of an envoy has specific consequences. We witness every day how the pillars of a classical world ordinance are under attack. Universal values, which were enshrined in the UN Charter and corroborated in trade, arms reduction, decolonisation, global efforts to deal with AIDS, climate change, rights of minorities and women, are under attack. Tradition expels progress, parochial attitudes undermine globalisation, human rights are becoming a la carte.  Equally, the diplomatic function is undermined by bureaucracy inside and by hatred for otherness outside. History is full of anecdotes about cultural collusion but behind the tension there remained respect.  After all, addressing an ambassador equals addressing the direct representative of a head of state. The universal discourse on that level has fallen prey to the hordes of crazy believers and actors, who at the same time often dispose of their norms and garments once they are in Paris, New York or Knightsbridge.

I do not intend to aggrandize the function of an envoy. After all, Voltaire said it so well: "L'histoire se nourrit aussi bien des temoignages des rois que de ceux de leurs valets de chambre."  Fact is that the "rational" is in retreat.  Islam, by the way, is not the only religion to blame.  Catholics have produced more dogmas and saints in the last century than Detroit produces cars. Still, the Vatican obeys the Vienna Convention, which the Muslim arsonists and killers never heard of, or would denigrate if they did. Muslim countries have often only one" patent", for the suicide vest.

The death in Benghazi is a tragedy. It is also another blow to a system, a step towards the "Somalization" of a region. We cannot ignore it, but we must be wary of becoming the unwilling accomplices thereof, looking the other way or thinking naively that this also will in Iraq,Yemen or Afghanistan? The Tunisian "match" immolated more than a human being, it set a region on fire. A vulgar movie is still less lethal than an unwarranted death, even if the consequences of that "snuff mishap" might surprise us, even more than they do at the moment.

The American envoy makes diplomats humble, but proud to be counted in his ranks. We mourn a man, we might as well mourn a way, a style, a gentleman's (or woman's)world which had better remain for the time being in an induced coma, for its own good.  Meanwhile, let's honour him by preparing for worse to come.

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