The first implicit claim in the title is rather straightforward, so we’ll deal with it quickly: The Iraq misadventure helped the US realize that toppling a foreign government is the easy part; the subsequent occupation is costly, dangerous, and unlikely to be successful within the near-term. The scars left from Iraq bred the hesitancy with which the US now approaches Libya. Indeed, the US has had a fairly consistent attitude throughout this string of North African uprisings: Cautious support of Egypt’s democracy movement is now followed by reluctant leadership of armed intervention in Libya.
The second claim deserves more explanation. I am arguing there is a causal link beyond just the obvious assertion that pro-democracy protests in Tunisia (and Egypt), inspired those in Libya. Rather, I would highlight two ways in which the events in Tunisia and Egypt shaped the actions of, on the one had Qaddafi, and on the other, Western governments, particularly France.
Once again, the first assertion is more straightforward than the second. After seeing that former Tunisian President Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Mubarak were unable to appease protesters in their respective countries by promising reforms, reshaping their governments, or making other concessions, Qaddafi clearly came to the conclusion that the only way to deal with an uprising in his country, should it occur, was brute force on a scale not seen in Egypt or Tunisia. This explains why he was so quick to turn the guns on his people, and why, unlike Mubarak who at first called his detractors “honest young people and citizens” and seemed to acknowledge that they had legitimate grievances, Qaddafi quickly called those protesting against him “enemies” and vowed to crush them.
But if Qaddafi learned from others’ mistakes, the West quickly learned from its own. Because little Tunisia didn’t attract much attention from the Western media, there was little pressure on Western governments to take a stance, and most remained silent, until President Ben Ali left the country, at which point Western leaders praised the Tunisian people. But while other Western governments were indifferent to the Tunisians’ struggle, France offered the assistance of its security forces to President Ben Ali just before he was forced out. Tunisia was a real banana skin for the West, and many rightly worried that they had come down on the wrong side of history.
Enter Libya. Unlike Messrs. Mubarak and Ben Ali who were considered friends and allies by the West, Qaddafi had a history as a pariah (his opening up to the West in 2003 notwithstanding). Military intervention from the West had already been requested by the Libyan rebels, and France especially must have sensed a chance to right its wrongs in North Africa.
And now back to the title of this post: The roles from the pre-Iraq war drama have been reversed. Then the role of the overzealous crusader was played by the US, with France acting as the obstinate peacenik. This time round it is France who has willingly donned the crusaders mantle (and title) in pushing the UN Security Council to authorize military strikes against Libya. The US, meanwhile, is doing everything it can to be rid of responsibility for this military adventure.
The reason for France’s enthusiasm in leading the charge against Libya (and indeed firing the first shots) is simple: French leaders want to be on the right side of history. They believe that when historians look back, they will view the series of uprisings across North Africa as part of the same event: The Arab Spring of 2011. France performed poorly in the first act in Tunisia. But if they take the lead in ridding Libya of Qaddafi, perhaps history will indeed view them as being on the side of right.