Ethan Chorin ’87
Author / International Affairs Professional
Who were your role models in high school?
My aunt and uncle both served as Chief of Protocol in the Carter administration—watching their travels sparked an interest in diplomacy. The colorized version of Lawrence of Arabia, which came out my senior year, couldn’t have been a better advertisement for an 18-year-old to learn Arabic and travel to the Middle East.
You helped set up the US Embassy in Libya in the mid-2000s and served as a US attaché posted to Libya. How did that role come about and what did the work entail?
I joined the US Foreign Service as the Iraq War was in full swing. Since most Arabic speakers were put on Iraq support roles, a call went out for volunteers to help set up a future US Embassy in Libya following a 2003 reconciliation deal with Muammar Gaddafi. I jumped at the chance to experience Libya, which had been off-limits to Americans for more than 20 years. One of my duties was to be a field reporter—describing how the country functioned, how business was done, the legal framework, local political disputes, and the scramble for oil and gas deals. I also helped American companies get a foothold in Libya. Occasionally, I stood in for the embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires at Gaddafi’s speeches, held in the black marble Ouagadougou Hall in the coastal city of Sirte.
You went back to Libya in 2011 and witnessed the 2012 attack on the US Mission in Benghazi. What was your role at the time and what were your immediate concerns immediately following?
I returned as a private citizen along with a Libyan-American colleague while the revolution was underway, to bring medical assistance to Eastern Libya. I was in contact with my former colleague, Ambassador Stevens, hours before the attack and we had plans to meet the next day. I was on the phone with the US Mission as the attack started. I didn’t know if our hotel (a couple of miles from the attack on the Mission) might be a target as well—groups of armed men gathered in front of the hotel until dawn. Early the next day, I learned of Stevens’ death and the other casualties. The urgent question immediately became: how do we get out of the country? Politically, I feared the attack would cause the US to leave Benghazi, allowing Al Qaeda and ISIS to take over the city and dooming attempts to stabilize the country—which is essentially what happened.
You wrote Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink. Why was it important to write a book about Benghazi a decade later?
Perspectives change over time, with distance, and with more information. My goal was to establish that Benghazi was far more than a “fake news” event. The attack and scandal played a major role in the 2016 election and helped shape the political world we live in today. Benghazi led to a dramatic rise in US risk aversion in the Middle East, with effects on the wars in Syria and Yemen, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and Russia’s war in Ukraine. I also wanted to go on record with what I experienced in Libya that I was never asked about in various debriefs or by the Benghazi Committee.
The history of the attack on Benghazi has been put to many uses in American political discourse. Why did you choose to write a new history of the event, and what conversations are you hoping it will start?
Relevant questions were never asked by either party because this information was not helpful to either political narrative. The American public was understandably baffled, because it had no broader context in which to understand the attack’s causes and broader consequences. I hope the book draws attention to the ever-growing problem of politicization of American foreign policy. When the government’s own intelligence and expert analysis is tailored or shaded to meet domestic political objectives, the country’s decision-making capacity is deeply compromised—along with the democratic process.
Can you tell us more about your current writing?
My main writing project for the last year has been a political and ecological travelogue of the Red Sea. The book follows a similar model as Benghazi—mixing personal anecdotes on places and people with politics and history.
What College Prep courses had a lasting impact on you?
Martin Marks’ survey of American history was one of the most useful of my College Prep classes. My favorite subject was Latin: in Jeannie DeVries’ classes on Virgil and Catullus, I realized I loved learning languages.