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Italy...s Peacekeeping Offer Signals Policy Shift Away From the U.S.

By Ian Fisher
THE NEW YORK TIMES


ROME

Kofi Annan SM ’72 thanked Italy. So did George W. Bush. And on Tuesday, as he stood on a ship carrying 800 Italian peacekeepers to Lebanon, the largest deployment of foreign troops to date, Prime Minister Romano Prodi could take pride that his nation had played the key role in overcoming Europe’s hesitation to put its soldiers at risk in the Middle East.

“Bush was very warm, thanking me for leadership, for having pushed the European team,” Prodi said in an interview on Monday, recalling a recent telephone conversation with the president.

But for all the points Italy scored for courage — pledging a total of 3,000 peacekeepers for Lebanon last week, when France made a first offer of just 200 — the nation’s new leaders are also using the moment to declare a new distance from Washington.

After five years of unusually close relations between Bush and the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, the new center-left leadership is shifting Italy back to the camp of Europe — and at the same time pushing for a stronger, more united Europe as a counterbalance to America.

The United States and Israel supported the Lebanon mission. But that seems almost incidental when Prodi and other Italian leaders talk about their reasons for pushing the mission so aggressively, despite the risks and the wavering elsewhere in Europe.

“When the United Nations decided to engage in the area, in Europe it was clear,” Prodi, for five years the European Union president, said in the telephone interview.

“It was a moral and political issue,” he added, for Europe to take the lead in stopping the fighting in Lebanon, thus carving out a stronger international role for Europe in the explosive — and geographically close — Middle East. With America bogged down in Iraq and distrusted by Arab nations, there was no one else to do it but Europe, he said.

“My policy is first of all a European policy,” he said. “I don’t think that any European country alone can have a role in the world. And so I want to create some kind of European co-action.”

For all the opposition here to the war in Iraq, Italy remains close to the United States, a fact that Berlusconi used to his political advantage in keeping its foreign policy in near-perfect alignment with America and, often, contrary to the rest of Europe.

“I am on whatever side America is on, even before I know what it is,” he said, half-jokingly, as he ran for office in 2001.

But with Iraq still mired in violence, Prodi’s government seems to feel a certain freedom to distance itself from Washington, apparently without paying a price either with voters or the Bush administration itself. For the moment, in the glow of the early success over forming a peacekeeping force for Lebanon, Italian leaders, political experts and even U.S. diplomats speak of a new “effective multilateralism” that Italy seems to be testing.

“Honestly, Berlusconi found himself in a different place with a stronger division of Europe and unilateralism of America,” Massimo D’Alema, the Italian foreign minister, said in an interview over the weekend. “We live in a different phase, and for this we are lucky, because today unilateralism is clearly in a crisis. It is finished.”

And so D’Alema, a former Communist, has felt free to take shots at U.S. foreign policy even as he cultivated what both Italian and U.S. officials say is a warm relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.