By Harrison Smith
November 16, 2020
Laurence Pope (Tunisia 1967-69), a veteran diplomat and counterterrorism expert who came out of retirement to serve as the top U.S. envoy to Libya weeks after the 2012 attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, died Oct. 31 at his home in Portland, Maine. He was 75.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Elizabeth Pope.
In his 31 years as a diplomat, Mr. Pope helped shape Iran and Iraq policy at the State Department, was appointed ambassador to Chad by President Bill Clinton and served as political adviser to Gen. Anthony Zinni, head of Central Command, which manages U.S. forces in the Middle East.
He had been retired for more than a decade when Islamist militants launched an assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. The attack marked the first time a U.S. ambassador [Chris Stevens (Morocco 1983-85)] was killed in the line of duty since 1979 and ignited a fierce political debate over the security of American personnel overseas.
It also inspired Mr. Pope to return to the Foreign Service, which he had joined in 1969 partly to avoid fighting in Vietnam. While his father had served in the Marines during World War II and received the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor, Mr. Pope often championed diplomacy above military action and lamented what he described as “the marginalization of the State Department.”
“I remember I heard the news that Stevens was killed and ran into the living room to tell him,” his wife, known as Betsy, recalled in a phone interview. “He sort of thought, ‘How could I help?’ and I spent about 20 minutes thinking about it. His parents were dead, our daughters were grown, and I came back in and told him, ‘You should volunteer to go. They’re not going to think of you, Larry, up here in Portland, Maine.’ ”
Mr. Pope was fluent in Arabic and had served as a political officer in Libya in the 1970s, early in dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule. After sending an email to Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns to volunteer, he was named chargé d’affaires to Libya in October 2012, charged with maintaining diplomatic links to the country as it moved toward democratic governance.
Mr. Pope remained in Libya for only three months — he was succeeded by William V. Roebuck, another career diplomat — but by many accounts was a stabilizing force in the country, at a time when the State Department had few senior Arabists in its ranks.
“He was part of the cavalry,” said David McFarland, a deputy assistant secretary of state who was then deputy chief of mission in Tripoli. In an email, he added that Mr. Pope “reassured staff that their work served a higher purpose for United States interests . . . then spent the next several months delivering on his pledges, with compassion and a dry sense of humor peppered throughout.”
Mr. Pope’s time in Libya served as an unexpected coda to a diplomatic career that had ended abruptly in 2000, when he retired months after Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Kuwait. As he told it, his appointment was short-circuited by congressional conservatives angered by his connection to Zinni, who had opposed efforts to finance Iraqi opposition groups in an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
In an essay in Foreign Service Journal, Mr. Pope recalled that he was approached by Danielle Pletka, a staff member working under Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. As she saw it, Mr. Pope either agreed with Zinni or was an ineffectual adviser, incapable of convincing his boss that supporting the Iraqi opposition was worthwhile.
“As Faustian bargains go, this one wasn’t hard to resist,” Mr. Pope wrote. “I told her that I would testify about my own views until the cows come home, but I wouldn’t talk about my advice to General Zinni.” He later launched a lobbying effort with support from Zinni and Defense Secretary William Cohen, who wrote letters to Helms to no avail. The committee decided not to act on his nomination, and Mr. Pope retired to Maine.
“Our ambassadors would constantly tell me how lucky I was to have him as an adviser,” said Zinni, who retired in 2000 as a four-star Marine general and recently served as a special envoy in the Persian Gulf. “He really understood the cultures in the Middle East and helped me get a greater appreciation, too. . . . In my 40 years’ experience in the military, I didn’t see a finer political adviser.”
Laurence Everett Pope II was born in New Haven, Conn., on Sept. 24, 1945. His mother was a homemaker, and his father became a bank president in the Boston area, leading the family to settle in Braintree, Mass.
While going through his father’s papers, Mr. Pope found a firsthand account of the Battle of Peleliu in the Pacific, written by a first sergeant in his father’s Marine company. His father, Everett, had received the Medal of Honor for taking and defending a hill during the battle, and Mr. Pope later edited the notes into a 2011 book, “Among Heroes.”
Mr. Pope studied philosophy at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and then served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, part of a semi-successful effort to avoid being sent to Vietnam. To his dismay, his first posting in the Foreign Service was as a vice-consul in Saigon.
Mr. Pope could be outspoken at times, notably while serving as ambassador to Chad. In a State Department cable, he wrote that some U.S.-backed aid programs in the country had gestation periods that were “longer than that of an African elephant” — comments that were later cited by Helms’s Senate staff in an effort to curtail foreign aid. In 1976, he married Elizabeth Harris, a journalist. In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters, Eleanor Pope of Queens and Elizabeth Pope of Portland; a brother; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Pope wrote several books after retiring from the Foreign Service, including a 2010 biography of French diplomat François de Callières.
He was also recruited by George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, to serve as staff director for a fact-finding committee that aimed to end Palestinian-Israeli violence and joined a State Department war-game exercise months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The organizer, Fred Hill, said in a phone interview that he had enlisted Middle East experts on behalf of Secretary of State Colin Powell to determine what such an invasion might look like. While most thought an invasion was a bad idea, Mr. Pope was especially forthright, saying it would be a “total disaster.”
“It was the bluntest criticism,” Hill said, “and most accurate among a huge majority of the 35 or so expert participants — most of whom agreed.”