Ciao, Berlusconi! Capisce, Pelosi?

What U.S. Democrats can learn from the Italian election.

Romano Prodi

George W. Bush is about to lose his best friend on the continent. If the polls hold up, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his center-right coalition will lose the April 9-10 national elections to Romano Prodi and his partners on the left.

Berlusconi’s impending defeat signals the end of an era in Italian politics. Six decades after Americans liberated Italy from the Fascists, the ruling parties are being ousted at least in part because of their clear pro-Americanism. More than the loss of another member of the dwindling coalition of the willing, the likely change in Italy’s government shows how the combination of support for the Iraq war, lack of ethical standards, and a shaky economy ought to turn domestic politics upside down. The results could prove instructive for the U.S. Democratic Party as it searches for a clear message before the November elections.

In the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Italy was one of the first nations to grant Washington permission to use its ports, highways, and airspace and to offer landing rights at Italian bases. Berlusconi has kept 3,000 soldiers in Iraq (currently the third-largest contingent behind the Brits and the South Koreans). He has played up his visits to U.S. military cemeteries and installations in Italy, linking the GIs’ sacrifice to the battle for Fallujah. He has also never missed an opportunity to wrap himself in the American flag.

Berlusconi is one of only a handful of foreign leaders to have hit the presidential visit trifecta, having met with Bush at Camp David, the ranch in Crawford, and the White House. In early March 2006, Berlusconi even addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress (with Vice President Cheney standing behind him). He told the chamber and a national audience watching back home that “a grand alliance of democracies” was needed to fight Islamic extremism. For good measure, he added, “When I see the American flag I don’t only see a flag of a great country, above all I see a universal symbol of liberty and democracy.”

Of course, Iraq didn’t go exactly as planned for the Italians either. Whatever sweet nothings Bush whispered in Berlusconi’s ear to get him to sign on, accept greetings as liberators, and then go home must have soured long ago. A suicide bomb in Nasiriya killed 18 Italians in November 2003; the CIA snatched an Egyptian cleric off a street in Milan in a sovereignty-busting extraordinary rendition that was front-page news for weeks in Italy; and U.S. soldiers mistakenly killed an Italian intelligence officer in April 2005 after he had bravely rescued a journalist who had been taken hostage. Each of these events allowed Berlusconi’s foes in the center-left opposition—struggling desperately to find a truly divergent economic or social platform—to draw a real contrast with the prime minister.

Prodi, a professor of economics and former president of the European Commission, was an early and outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He recently gloated to Newsweek: “I thought that the Iraqi war was absolutely damaging our interests and world interests and would become a nightmare. And now I don’t want to say I was right, but let us simply put the real problem on the table.” Prodi favors the French and German position on Iraq and European-style diplomacy over a policy of pre-emption.

The April elections have forced Berlusconi to declare that all Italian troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2006, but the announcement came too late and with too much other bad news in the wings. The Italian economy is sputtering under the weight of competition from Asia. Italy’s average economic growth over the past 15 years has been the slowest in the European Union, and economists are talking glumly about the possibility of an Argentina-like crisis in the not-so-distant future. Despite his best attempts to pass legislation to protect himself and his associates, Berlusconi also continues to fend off a dizzying array of ethical charges that now include trying to bribe a British lawyer (the estranged husband of Tony Blair’s Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell) to give false testimony. Italy’s center-right doesn’t stand for prosperity, good government, or peace.

Only die-hard Prodi supporters believe a center-left government would be able to make the painful reforms needed to jump-start the economy or the fortitude to clean up the longstanding ethical messes. Iraq and the pro-Bush tilt are, however, different matters. Rome’s switch to Paris and Berlin’s view of the world will not affect the balance of power in international affairs, but the change is symbolically significant for Italian voters looking for change. Should Prodi win, the fallout from three years of American military intervention in Iraq will have helped to take down a ruling right-wing politician and his party. American Democrats should take note.