Politics & Policy

Why the Libya War?

Did Italy press the U.S. to intervene — or vice versa?

Back in late March, shortly after the start of the NATO bombing campaign against Libya, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Meet the Press that the U.S. had no “vital interest” in the country. The remark famously inspired Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to cut in and attempt to explain why, then, the United States was getting involved. Secretary Clinton’s explanation was that the Libyan campaign was in the vital interest of America’s NATO allies and that they had asked for U.S. support. “When it comes to Libya,” she said, “we started hearing from the U.K., France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interest.”

Secretary Clinton’s inclusion of Italy in the list was dubious to begin with. In fact, from the start of the unrest in Libya, the Italian government warned about taking sides in the conflict and supporting the rebellion. For example, in an interview published on February 23 in the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini alluded to the creation of an “Islamic Emirate” in the eastern-Libyan heartland of the rebellion. “We do not know more [about it],” Frattini told Il Corriere. “But we know that they are dangerous. There are elements of al-Qaeda there.”

The Italian government’s caution was hardly surprising, given that the February 17 protests that sparked the rebellion were called to commemorate protests five years earlier that had culminated in the storming of the Italian consulate in Benghazi by an angry mob. Several local residents were killed when Libyan security forces attempting to protect the consulate opened fire on the mob. The outrage of the protesters was tied to the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and other European newspapers. (On the 2006 protests, see my article “Our Principles? The Libyan Insurrection and the Mohammed Cartoons.”)

The Italian reluctance to support a military intervention also had to do with fears of seeing such an intervention provoke an exodus of tens of thousands of refugees from Libya, many of whom would inevitably end up in Italy. These fears have proven well founded.

But now, according to a report in the Saturday edition of Il Corriere della Sera, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has confided to colleagues not only that he was opposed to the NATO intervention in Libya, but that he was pressured into making available Italian military capabilities by precisely the United States. According to the report, Berlusconi recalled that “at the time I had warned our international partners, and also at home I had explained that the operation would not be easy . . .” “But,” Berlusconi is reported to have continued, “in the face of the pressures exerted by the United States, the position of [Italian president Giorgio] Napolitano, and the vote [in favor of the intervention] by our parliament, what could I do?”

In 2008, the Berlusconi government had concluded a “partnership and friendship” treaty with Qaddafi’s Libya. According to Il Corriere, the Italian prime minister now fears that the Libyan ruler wants to have him killed. “Now there is a risk that Qaddafi will stay [in power],” Berlusconi is supposed to have said, “and the person who was our best friend in the region has become our worst enemy. Italy has been harmed.”

Berlusconi had already stated publicly, in early July, that he “was and is” opposed to the intervention in Libya but that he had been “forced” to provide Italian support. At the time, however, he emphasized that the principal promoter of the war was an unnamed European government, not the United States.

Following the publication of the report in Il Corriere, the Italian government issued a statement dismissing press accounts of Berlusconi’s private remarks as “fantasy” and specifically denying “supposed revelations concerning Qaddafi.” In response, Il Corriere issued a statement explaining that the paper “understands the expediency” of the government’s denial, but noting that the sources for its report are “prominent members of the government and of the PDL [Berlusconi’s party] who met with the prime minister.”

Whatever the truth of that, we may be sure that Secretary Clinton’s claim — that Italy pressed the United States to intervene — is fantasy indeed.

— John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.


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