Although the collapse of Romano Prodi’s government came as no surprise to American observers of Italy, it nonetheless represents a sad and sobering blow to the prospects for transatlantic cooperation. During its short nine months in office, the Prodi government did an admirable job of fashioning a foreign policy that distanced Italyfrom Silvio Berlusconi’s unquestioned support for Washington , but nonetheless preserved a good working relationship with the Bush administration.
This was no easy task. That Prodi was punished rather than rewarded for this agile balancing act reveals the myopia of Italy’s far left and raises troubling questions about whetherItaly ’s fractious political system can produce steadiness and resolve at a time when the West’s future is on the line.
In light of Prodi’s vociferous opposition to the war inIraq , some in Washingtonfeared that his victory in last year’s election would put American-Italian relations on ice. Perhaps Italywould follow in the footsteps of Spain , where the elections of March 2004 unseated the pro-American government of Jose Maria Aznar. Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero promptly withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq , and the resulting estrangement between MadridandWashingtonhas yet to be repaired.
This worst-case scenario did not repeat itself in Italy . To be sure, Prodi’s task was made easier by the fact that relations across the Atlantic were less polarized in 2006 than they were in 2004. In its second term, the Bush administration, chastened by the disaster that has unfolded in Iraq , has been more willing to listen to European allies and has come to accept that its coalition partners are leavingIraq . Moreover, under the pressure of the campaign, Berlusconi had announced that Italian troops would leave Iraq , relieving Prodi of that task.
Nonetheless, Prodi and Massimo D’Alema have done an impressive job of navigating the shoals of a troubled Atlantic relationship. It would have been far easier for the government to cater to anti-Bush sentiment and call for Italy and the EU to part ways with Washington. Instead, Prodi has sustained Italy ’s commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan . Despite considerable domestic opposition, he has supported the enlargement of theU.S.base in Vicenza. And in the midst of Israel ’s war with Hezbollah—just as U.S. diplomacy was collapsing—Italy stepped in to help negotiate an end to the conflict and organize the timely dispatch of a UN peacekeeping force.
Prodi has also been reasonably successful in walking carefully through several minefields, including the indictment of the CIA operatives involved in the Abu Omar case and the pressure from Washington to isolate Iran—pressure that is likely to grow in the coming weeks.
FromWashington ’s perspective, the most glaring foreign policy mistake that Prodi’s government has made was to condemn the U.S.attacks against terrorist cells in Somalia . Even for Americans who oppose the Iraqwar and view Bush’s “global war on terror” as having gone dangerously off course, surgical strikes against known Al-Qaeda networks constitute exactly the right way to use force to fight terrorism.
Even amid these sources of tension, the Italian and American governments have maintained a credible partnership. To Prodi’s credit, Italyremains one of the key European countries to which the United States turns for help and support, especially with Tony Blair so weak and the French government in effective paralysis.
That the Prodi government collapsed over its conduct of foreign policy is a sorry commentary on the state of Italian politics. Prodi surely deserves criticism for his domestic policies; his agenda for economic reform sorely lacks the ambition that Italy desperately needs. But foreign policy has been this government’s strongest suit.
It is particularly troubling that the issue that undermined the government was the war in Afghanistan—a just war that had the firm backing of NATO members and many other countries. With a new Taliban offensive likely in the spring and NATO already hard-pressed to defeat the insurgents, it is nothing short of shamefully irresponsible for Italy ’s far left to bring down the Prodi government over the country’s contribution to the mission, risking not just the future of Afghanistan , but the future of NATO.
Prodi deserves better. He certainly deserves the second chance that President Napolitano is giving him. And he deserves the support of the Italian left—which for the sake ofItalyand the future of the West had better wake up and enter the twenty-first century.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.