Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s visit with President Bush on Wednesday at the White House is being closely watched at home, where a growing number of people feel that their soldiers’ mission in Iraq can no longer be defined as “peace-keeping."
Berlusconi will meet Bush to prove to Italians that he is engaged in deliberations about the future in Iraq and and concerned about Italian soldiers' presence there.
Despite what his opponents say, Berlusconi described his agenda in the U.S. as "very clear."
"We want to be certain that there is a clear turnaround in the Iraqi situation -- that sovereignty really passes to the government chosen by the U.N. envoy [Lakhdar] Brahimi and that this government gives life to an assembly that is representative of the Iraqi civilization," Berlusconi told an Italian TV station by phone while enroute to the United States.
First combat casualty
This week Italians suffered their first combat casualty when 23-year-old Corporal Matteo Vanzan died from the blood loss caused by a shrapnel wound to his thigh.
Vanzan and a dozen fellow soldiers were wounded in the course of a 16-hour battle with militia faithful to radical Shiite Imam Al Sadr.
The conflict was in Nasiriyah, controlled by the Italian contingent, where a terror attack last November claimed the lives of 17 Carabinieri military policemen and two civilians.
With al-Qaida’s claim of responsibility for that suicide mission, those deaths were attributed to terror instead of war, and that distinction, under Italian law, is significant.
That is because the 11th article of the Italian constitution states that Italy will not conduct or participate in wars of “belligerence.”
Constitutionally, Italy deems war should be only defensive, of itself or its allies. The spirit of this law is to prevent the reoccurrence of Mussolini’s fascist policies of colonialism and regional domination.
No longer a humanitarian mission
The issue is not semantic. Both sides of the Italian parliament voted to approve the commitment of troops on the wording of “a humanitarian mission to bring maintain peace and security in post-war Iraq.”
Despite Berlusconi’s “law and order conservatism” and a full majority in both houses of parliament, he could not (even if he had wanted to), have sent Italian troops to battle with the initial invasion.
So despite the fact that Berlusconi is proud of being Bush’s strongest ally in Continental Europe, now that Spain has pulled out, he has to mind his words for domestic political reasons.
He continues to express stalwart support of America’s leadership on Iraq, but with the prisoner abuse scandal casting a deep shadow over that leadership, and the flare-up of hostilities against Italian soldiers, Berlusconi’s stance is becoming harder to defend here at home.
With elections for the European Parliament just a month away Berlusconi cannot afford to look bad, because a loss on the European front will be perceived as impending decline at home.
The leftist opposition in Italy is taking full political advantage of Berlusconi’s difficult position.
They are pointing to the recent fighting in Nasiriyah as evidence that any pretense of peacekeeping is gone. Rather than maintaining peace among the locals, the Italian troops now have to hunker down just to protect themselves.
America’s ‘lap dog’?
Berlusconi, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, faces the constant accusation of being America’s “lap dog.”
Now he needs to prove to Italians that he can assert himself with Bush, while at the same time not losing any of the good favor he has gained with the White House.
Berlusconi believes he can do this by demanding a “swift and real” transition to Iraqi sovereignty and U.N. leadership of the “security effort.”
Since this is a reflection of what the U.S. administration wants as well, Berlusconi is hardly going out on a limb.
Likewise, Bush with his own electoral concerns, is savvy enough to let Silvio have his “forceful say” in the Oval office photo-op to please his Italian constituency, and then doing exactly what he pleases afterwards.
That would allow the relationship to remain solid and still allow Berlusconi the face-saving position of saying “Look, I tried to get Bush to deal with this differently but he...” couldn’t or wouldn’t.
This tactic might help Berlusconi bridge the gap to June 30 when events will probably pick up a historical momentum of their own, enabling him to make a more popular decision.
Until then he will just keep logrolling and smiling for the camera, while he prepares for Bush to come to Rome on June 4th for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome.