- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s staunch and open support of the United States and his recent spats with other European officials have earned him a rare mountain-ranch double.

President Bush today will welcome the Italian leader to his Crawford, Texas, ranch for a two-day stay, making the combative Mr. Berlusconi just the fourth foreign leader to be invited to both the Crawford spread and to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains. Mr. Berlusconi’s Camp David visit was in September.

The substance of the Texas get-together will include the war on terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and Mr. Berlusconi’s new role as the president of the EU for the rest of the year.

The two leaders also may face questions tomorrow at a news conference over reported Italian intelligence reports — which Mr. Berlusconi heatedly denies — concerning widely disputed efforts by Iraq to purchase uranium from African nations.

An Italian journalist said yesterday that she had given a copy of what have been proven to be forged documents on the case to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in October. She insisted that her source was not related to Italy’s intelligence service.

However, the symbolism of the Berlusconi visit may be even more compelling: An outspoken and divisive force in Italian and EU politics, Mr. Berlusconi at least can count on one very good ally in Washington.

Mr. Berlusconi heads “easily the most pro-American government in modern Italian history,” said John Hulsman, a research fellow in European affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

“He’s definitely not in the classic EU mold,” Mr. Hulsman said. “He doesn’t like to sit around in intellectual circles and talk about structures and systems. He likes to get things done, and I think that’s appreciated in this White House.”

President Bush “values Prime Minister Berlusconi’s leadership,” the White House said last week in announcing the visit. “Italy is among the United States’ closest allies in NATO and has been a strong supporter in the global war on terrorism and in bringing peace and democracy to Iraq,” the administration said.

Mr. Bush’s guest, a self-made billionaire media and real-estate magnate, ranks as perhaps Europe’s most colorful and quotable political figure.

His center-right coalition government has challenged some of his country’s fundamental foreign policy tenets, notably Rome’s strong support of a more powerful EU, even as the prime minister conducts long-running feuds with prosecutors at home and leftist newspapers across Europe over his tangled personal finances and free-market policies.

His tenure as EU president began earlier this month with a classic Berlusconi flap, when the sharp-tongued prime minister told a heckling German member of the European Parliament that he would have made a good Nazi concentration camp guard in a movie.

Mr. Berlusconi ran considerable political risk with his strong support for the U.S.-led military action in Iraq, refusing to join German and French efforts to rally opposition to the war.

Despite large anti-war demonstrations in Rome and the outspoken opposition of Pope John Paul II, Mr. Berlusconi signed a now-famous letter by eight European leaders backing the United States’ tough line at the height of the U.N. debate over Iraq.

“We support the reasons for the allied Anglo-American attack on Iraq because this is a right and legal war,” Mr. Berlusconi told the Italian parliament in the first days of the war.

Mr. Berlusconi has portrayed himself as America’s strongest ally in Western Europe, and Italian officials argue that the prime minister is well-positioned to ease recent strains in transatlantic ties over Iraq and other issues.

“Mr. Berlusconi has a personal rapport with Mr. Bush, and I believe that nobody can complain about that if it leads to patching up relations with the U.S.,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters in Rome last week.

A onetime cruise ship singer who is now his country’s richest man, the 66-year-old Mr. Berlusconi is a radical departure from the almost indistinguishable cast of professional politicians who dominated postwar Italian politics and the seemingly endless procession of short-lived coalition governments.

His skepticism of the EU and the Brussels bureaucracy stems in large part from his strongly free-market platform and his admiration for more American-style economic freedoms. He also has challenged some basic EU foreign policy initiatives, notably on Iraq and in distancing himself from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Defying EU policy, Mr. Berlusconi has refused to meet with Mr. Arafat, whom both Israel and the United States are trying to isolate. However, Palestinian officials were quoted by news reports yesterday as saying that the Italian leader will visit Mr. Arafat in the near future.

The prime minister’s bluntness and willingness to trample on diplomatic niceties has provoked numerous controversies. Two weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Berlusconi caused a firestorm when he asserted that Western civilization was superior to Islam because it provided prosperity for its people and guaranteed respect for human rights.

“The West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered communism,” he asserted.

After vehement protests from fellow EU leaders and the Arab League, Mr. Berlusconi recanted — in part. He expressed regret that his remarks, “badly translated, have offended the sensibility of my Arab and Muslim friends,” saying he had been quoted out of context.

Ironically for a man who owns a huge chunk of his country’s own electronic media and newspaper outlets, Mr. Berlusconi attracts some of the most vicious news media criticism of any European leader, denounced as a “shady dealmaker” and a “threat to liberal democracy” by leading leftist papers on the continent.

Financial Times columnist Quentin Peel wrote recently that with Mr. Berlusconi’s new role as president of the EU, “alarm bells are ringing around the continent.”

“He has called into question a fundamental relationship between Italy and Europe that has been used for decades to discipline the country’s often chaotic politics and economy,” Mr. Peel wrote. “And his blatantly self-serving style of government suggests that he has little concern for the rules of good governance that the [EU] demands of all its new members.”

Italian political analysts say the sharp criticism abroad is not necessarily hurting Mr. Berlusconi at home, where the prime minister often portrays the personal attacks on him as veiled attacks on Italy.

Despite a sluggish economy that is expected to grow less than 1 percent this year, Mr. Berlusconi’s center-right coalition appears to be securely in power, with the country’s left-wing parties divided and unable to mount a serious challenge to his leadership for now.

The EU presidency looms as a major challenge for Mr. Berlusconi, as the 15-nation bloc prepares to welcome 10 new Central and Eastern European nations next year and as hard bargaining continues over a proposed draft constitution that will be debated at a major summit this fall.

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