By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 08/06/08):
Firmly back in power after a two-year hiatus, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will welcome President Bush to Rome this week by extending him a helping hand on Afghanistan and Iraq. But the conservative Italian leader will also be peering over his departing friend’s shoulder at who, and what, will come next from Washington.
The president is politically dead. Long live the president.
However hostile their publics are to Bush, Europe’s most important leaders will be observing that natural progression of statecraft this week as they host Bush on his farewell tour of Europe. The president — already toast in U.S. opinion polls — will instead briefly be the toast of the Old Continent.
Bush joins European Union leaders for a summit in Slovenia and then travels on to be celebrated in Germany, Italy, France and Britain. He meets Berlusconi on Thursday.
«We are relaunching the era of particularly close and friendly relations with the United States» and not just with the departing president, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview here. At the same time, it is no accident that Berlusconi has chosen this moment to push for the loosening of combat restrictions on Italy’s troops in Afghanistan and to air the possibility of increasing the training that Italy already quietly provides for Iraq’s defense and police forces. Bush, after all, is an old friend.
Berlusconi’s return to power in April was one sign of a changing political environment in Europe that will encourage greater allied solidarity on Iran, Israel and other issues, said Frattini, speaking here at the annual meeting of the Council of the United States and Italy. «Italy is now aligned with the very firm approach adopted by the United States and its European allies on Iran’s nuclear program» and will help enforce new U.N. sanctions if they are needed.
Frattini traveled to NATO headquarters near Brussels two weeks ago to outline the decision to loosen combat restrictions — known as «caveats» in alliance jargon — on Italy’s 2,600 troops operating in western Afghanistan and Kabul. That move would give NATO more battlefield flexibility against the Taliban.
It will also inevitably focus new attention on Germany’s long-standing refusal to enable its troops to engage in combat operations in Afghanistan — as did President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent commitment of 700 additional French troops to Afghanistan.
On Iraq, Frattini disclosed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had recently asked Italy to upgrade its cooperation by providing military training for Iraq’s fledgling naval and air forces and to increase the number of trainers that Italy provides through NATO to Iraq’s security forces.
The Italian contingent, which has trained thousands of Iraqi police officers, numbers only about 50 officers at present. Any increased involvement in Iraq would be a welcome shift of direction for Italy, which withdrew its combat forces from Iraq in 2006.
The previous government, a center-left coalition headed by Romano Prodi, kept the trainers and a highly regarded Provincial Reconstruction Team of civilian-military advisers in Iraq after the 2006 pullout.
Prodi acted out of a sense of allied solidarity. But he was careful never to publicize the continuing Italian presence in Iraq for fear of negative public reaction and its effect on his coalition’s fragile hold on power. Berlusconi, on the other hand, is more than happy to spotlight any helping hand Italy can extend to the United States.
«We believe it is important to show the Italian people that we are meeting our responsibilities and working with our friends,» Frattini said, adding that anti-Americanism has not sunk deep roots in Italy or the rest of Europe. And Berlusconi’s return to power suggests that being a friend of Bush’s is not a fatal political condition.
Sarkozy has made a similar judgment. In addition to the fresh help in Afghanistan, he is holding out the prospect of France rejoining the integrated military command of NATO. But in the spirit of continuity he will delay that action until next year — at the beginning of a new American administration.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is closer to Washington than was Gerhard Schroeder. And British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, after an initial distance-taking with Bush, will want to forge a new special relationship with the next American leader before going to the polls himself.
Divisive new issues — trade is the clearest candidate — could emerge to upset post-Bush trans-Atlantic relations. But Americans and Europeans have developed the habit over six decades of settling or putting aside old quarrels in time to contain the new ones that arise. That seems to be happening again.