I met briefly with Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough Wednesday at the closing of the symposium, “International Religious Freedom: An Imperative for Peace and the Common Good,” (sponsored jointly by The Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services). McDonough’s scheduled appearance was delayed considerably by Wednesday’s traumatic events in Libya as the Obama administration grappled with the unfolding crisis and the killing of Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other members of the U.S. diplomatic team in Benghazi. McDonough’s well-scripted appearance at the conference wavered only briefly when he seemed to struggle to keep his composure through a small tribute to Stevens at the end of his prepared statements. Following his presentation, he shared some thoughts about the loss of Ambassador Stevens.
“I was really blessed,” McDonough said, “I had the opportunity to work with him, and I got to know him over the course of the last year and half. He’s a guy for whom I had a tremendous amount of respect; we’re going to miss him a lot.”
McDonough described Ambassador’s Steven’s death as a tremendous setback for the people of Libya but particularly for the people of Benghazi, where Stevens was killed and where the resistance to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had first coalesced. McDonough said, “He in many ways gave his life for the freedom of Benghazi,” recalling that Stevens was actually in Benghazi soon after Qaddafi threatened to obliterate the resistance centered there “in those tenuous days in February and March 2011 when we thought Benghazi was going to be reduced to rubble.”
McDonough anticipates that the president’s decision to throw the United States behind NATO forces in a multilateral “responsibility to protect” air campaign to defend Libyan noncombatants, then more controversially the resistance itself, against Qaddafi loyalists will now be second-guesssed because of the loss of American life. He still believes it was the right call.
“We’re working everyday to make sure that the Libyans, who have a unique opportunity now, make everything of that opportunity,” he said. “There are going to continue to be Libyans who chose a path of hate and violence and it’s our job to make sure that we promote the kind of security that the overwhelming majority of Libyans want. And I got to tell you where I’m really proud, of all the people in our embassy and consulate in Libya for the great sacrifice they make everyday and for their families for the great sacrifice they make, and it’s all for a noble cause.”
McDonough noted that Wednesday morning both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the United States’ continuing support of the Libyan government. But, he added, “That said we need to see some progress on the investigation of this heinous attack; we need to bring the perpetrators to justice. We’re going to rely on our Libyan partners in that regard, but Ill also say this: we’re not going to rest until we find these guys.”