The two-part New York Times examination of Hillary Clinton's role in the disastrous U.S. intervention against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi includes a revealing sidebar featuring various people's opinions about what went wrong. A few of my favorites:
Michael T. Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency: "This was a disaster. This was not a failure. It was a disaster.… We made it worse. All I know is that in Libya we took a guy out—again not a great guy—but a guy who maintained stability in a bad neighborhood."
Philip H. Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under Clinton: "I'm not among the people who thinks there was a magical way we could have done this right. The 'failure-to-follow-up' critique in particular drives me crazy because it implies that if we'd only paid attention, et cetera, everything would be O.K.…We gave the Libyans a chance. It turned out that they weren't up to it—or maybe we weren't up to it. Maybe it was just too hard."
David H. Petraeus, retired general and former CIA director: "It's pretty easy in hindsight. In the wake of Qaddafi's fall, we weren't quick enough to get in there and try to do something and actually have a meaningful contribution that could help secure and stabilize the situation.…It's very hard to say whether additional assets in a comprehensive manner would have been enough. But what we did was certainly not enough."
Derek Chollet, former State Department, National Security Council and Defense Department official: "When I looked at Libya, I thought, all right, we've got a small population, six million people, we have tremendous energy resources that had been underdeveloped, we had the international community that is extraordinarily unified and invested in Libya's success. I mean, this is the opposite of Iraq in every way. So by God, if we can't succeed here, it should really make one think about embarking on these kind of efforts."
It really should, shouldn't it? This experience should give pause even to the most enthusiastic interventionist, imparting a lesson about the limits of American power and the impossibility of doing just one thing in a world full of complexity and unintended consequences. Yet Clinton seems unfazed by the hideous results of her signature achievement as secretary of state. Here is what she told the Council on Foreign Relations last November:
And with the developments in Libya, for example, the Libyan people have voted twice in free and fair elections for the kind of leadership they want. They have not been able to figure out how to prevent the disruptions that they are confronted with because of internal divides and because of some of the external pressures that are coming from terrorist groups and others. So I think it's too soon to tell. And I think it's something that we have to be, you know, looking at very closely.
Recall that it took Clinton more than a decade after the invasion of Iraq to publicly admit voting for that war was a mistake, for many of the same reasons that choosing sides in Libya's civil war was a mistake. So maybe she will have a similar epiphany about Libya sometime around 2022. By that point she could be halfway through her second term as president—plenty of time for more disastrous decisions, presumably starting with Syria. But the timing of her second thoughts about Libya won't really matter, because she is clearly a person who does not learn from her mistakes, even when she acknowledges them.