Da The Daily Star del 29/08/2006
Originale su http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&a...

Italy steps into the Lebanese breach

di Marco Vicenzino

After World War II, Italy became a leading economic and democratic power, a loyal and effective partner in the trans-Atlantic alliance, and a nation with a substantial pacifist culture as a reaction to the carnage of the global conflict. Unlike France and the United Kingdom, however, which have regularly assumed international military roles of leadership and projected power overseas, Italy has often been reluctant to do so.

With nearly 3,000 troops to be withdrawn from Iraq before year's end, the offer by Prime Minister Romano Prodi for Italy to assume leadership of the multinational operation in Lebanon was a bold move elevating the stature of Italy and Prodi's own government. By seizing the diplomatic initiative from France and committing troops, Italy surprised many, as did France's initial conflicting signals on its troop commitments, before President Jacques Chirac reversed himself last week. Now France will lead the United Nations force, to be succeeded by Italy early next year. Perhaps even more surprising was that the first official request for Italian leadership came from Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Although Italy has significant experience in peacekeeping, its leading a mission of this magnitude and complexity carries enormous risks and will prove demanding for a fragile government representing a coalition that won April's election by the narrowest of margins. Coupled with other domestic challenges, Prodi is confronted with an immense agenda. His 14-party ruling coalition includes elements and support ranging from the center of the political spectrum to the far left, with strong anti-war tendencies. Should the mission encounter difficulties in the complexities of Lebanon and the Middle East, particularly involving the use of armed force and its often unpredictable consequences, significant pressure from within the coalition could result in its potential collapse. This could lead either to an election or result in a grand centrist coalition designed to uphold Italy's international credibility in a time of crisis.

In addition, questions remain as to whether the Italian public is ready and willing to support a long-term commitment in Lebanon. Although the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s and the ensuing peacekeeping operations were controversial during the reign of a center-left government, they involved a considerable collective effort by all Western powers. A sense of trans-Atlantic unity and responsibility ultimately prevailed.

A major factor to ensure success in a multinational Lebanon mission is continuity and consistency from the participating states. The Italian public's ability to endure heavy casualties could prove to be a significant obstacle. When 18 Italian servicemen were killed in a suicide bombing in Nassariyya, Iraq, elements in the Italian media claimed it was "Italy's 9/11." Italy's presence in Nassariyya had a stabilizing impact on the local population, but its mission was limited in scope to a specific area and the threat of American and British firepower, particularly aerial power, always served as a deterrent to insurgents. However, when multinational forces were confronted with a wave of coordinated attacks throughout Iraq in April 2004, Italian troops were effective in restoring order.

Iraq proved highly unpopular domestically from the very beginning. However, if Italy's leadership is able to clearly and compellingly convey the purpose, justification and importance of the Lebanon mission, it may succeed in convincing the Italian public, at least in the short-term. Eventually, should the mission gradually yield some positive dividends, selling a sustained long-term presence may become less burdensome.

Italy's participation may potentially mark a historical change for Italian foreign policy demonstrated by a new-found long-term willingness to play a greater and more proactive role in the international community, particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin. Italy's aim is to contribute a significantly stabilizing influence and presence in an increasingly unstable region. Although the US Navy's Sixth Fleet, with its headquarters in Italy, remains the ultimate guarantor and linchpin of stability in the Mediterranean, Prodi's decision to assume a leading role in Lebanon may reflect a realization that instability in Lebanon is not only a threat to Middle Eastern security, but also to the stability of the wider Mediterranean Basin, thus making Lebanon a Mediterranean responsibility that all regional member states must contribute to.

In addition, as US resources are increasingly overstretched by numerous commitments and the need for United Nations peacekeeping increases with the proliferation of domestic and regional instability, greater burden-sharing at the international and regional levels is fundamental, and will become ever more so, for the maintenance of global security and order.

Although Italy is slated to take over leadership of the multinational effort in Lebanon, greater Mediterranean responsibility and division of labor means continuing this process - in the form of joint mission commands or rotating leadership commands among the basin's leading powers, primarily Italy, France and Turkey.

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