Rhodes was one of the aides who, along with Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, helped persuade Obama to join the intervention. In spite of the chaos that followed, he stands by that decision. “We saved a lot of lives in Benghazi and the rest of the country,” he said. “If Qaddafi had gone into Benghazi, I think Libya would look more like Syria today.” He added, “What did we do wrong? Even the President would acknowledge that it’s been extremely difficult to fill the vacuum in Libya. We were keen for the Libyans to take the lead. Everyone knows the dangers of a completely U.S.-owned postwar environment. We might have used a heavier hand, but there’s no guarantee it would have made a difference.”

Other officials were more blunt about the limits of the intervention. The senior Administration official believed that three failures had led to the fiasco in Libya: “The lack of a single national-security apparatus, replaced by militias; a real terrorist problem, which was small but has gotten much worse; and a proliferation of arms. How does the world respond to all this? The U.N. gets a mandate, goes there, and finds out there’s no one to work with—the ministries are Potemkin. The I.M.F. goes in, says what’s wrong, and doesn’t do much about it. The World Bank hardly does anything. Vast numbers of people came to Libya to look for contracts, but nobody got any money, so they went away. NATO tried to design a national-defense system, but the Libyans failed to engage with them. The French were going to train three thousand police. Instead, they trained thirty. Then some cadets were sent to Jordan for training, but the Jordanians kicked them out after they burned down a sports facility, because they were angry about a flight delay.” In November, the official noted, three hundred Libyan soldiers being trained in the U.K. were expelled after half a dozen of them ran amok in an English village, sexually assaulting several women and raping a man. “The Libyans defeated everyone,” he said. “It didn’t matter whether you were Gandhi or Stalin. It didn’t matter how hard we tried, they defeated us all.”

When I asked the official to explain the current U.S. policy toward Libya, he said, “It’s a sensible one: a ceasefire, an inclusive government, no way forward but political.” He detailed the way a ceasefire might play out. “Will this work?” he asked. “Maybe, maybe not. But what I am telling you is that it is the best policy the U.S. and other Western powers can come up with.”

I spent two weeks in Libya, crossing it from east to west, and the only other Westerners I encountered were a few British security consultants and two German journalists. Everywhere I went, Libyans stared at me. Occasionally, young men asked where I was from. When I said that I was American, some joked about jihadists and the possibility of my being abducted and beheaded. At the entrance to the town of Sousa, near Derna, officials admonished my Libyan companions for bringing a Westerner there, asking, “What if something happens to him?”