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'Our Son Of A Bitch' - How Italy Got In So Deep With Gaddafi

Analysis: the violent crackdown in Libya exposes decades of Rome playing ball with a dictator, the sort of economic-driven Western realpolitik that must end.

(abodeofchaos)

The bloodbath that is going on right now in our backyard is not an occasion for scoring political points on the home front. For starters, Italy's relations with Muammar Gaddafi have been a bipartisan affair for decades, a shared policy in its substance if not the form of the (ridiculous and humiliating) last visit to Rome of the "mad dog of the Middle East," to use Ronald Reagan's old definition of the Libyan leader that is particularly pertinent today. The only voice of dissent with respect to this pro-Gaddafi approach has come from the center-right Northern League, which criticized the increased stake of Libyan capital in Italian banking group Unicredit.

Our country of course has a very clear and present stake in the future of Libya. This is a very different case from that of Afghanistan, where Italy has tried to preserve its credibility in NATO through the fight against terrorism. This is about about energy security, oil prices, shares of major banks and companies here and Italian citizens who work there. Libya is now an integral part of our economic system, as one can read plainly on the Milan Stock Exchange.

The bloody chaos of Libya is also setting the stage for a new wave of immigration to Italy's shores. Bilateral agreements, often forged under blackmail threats of the Libyan leader to relax controls along his country's coastline, may very quickly come undone.

The current predicament reveals another even more disturbing truth: in the relationship with Gaddafi, Italy was the weaker partner. In theory, we could have hoped that Gaddafi was to Rome what Tunisia's Ben Ali was to Paris, or Hosni Mubarak to Washington: "our son of a bitch," to borrow the famous phrase attributed to Franklin Roosevelt when explaining American support of the then Nicaragua dictator Anastasio Somoza. But in truth, Italy has never been able to exercise real influence over Gaddafi. We convinced Europe and an often doubtful United States that we could somehow guarantee the reliability of that most unreliable North African Colonel. We could not. And maybe we never really tried. But it is precisely this perception - as well as striking the wrong first notes amid Rome's embarrassment in front of the explosion of repression – which explains international irritation against Italy.

And so Gaddafi's tragic showdown becomes a wider defeat for a foreign policy vision that has spanned the political spectrum. It is rooted in the national DNA and reflects the idea that economic interests can be defended regardless of the conditions or consequences, or the foreign counterpart. Because, it was always said, whoever has the oil (over there) has to sell it, and whoever invests (over here) has to make a living.

That may be the case. But while future scenarios for Libya remain very difficult to predict – ranging from a civil war to a split in the country, with the secession of Cyrenaica in the east - it would make sense to start acknowledging that economic ties also involve political relationships. We must start questioning the limits of a realpolitik that no longer stands up against the test of time or the people's desire for freedom. It is also crucial to ask whether we can continue to entrust Italy's energy security to regimes that may eventually face violent internal crises. If time is running out on Middle Eastern autocracies, it is possible that large Asian autocracies are also less "sustainable" than was hitherto thought.

The lesson of Libya, for Italy, is a hard and costly one. It's a human tragedy for six million people to whom we owe the responsibilities of colonial history. It is a political defeat for the whole of our country, no matter what happens. But it is also an opportunity for a shared and deep rethinking of national security in a time when economic interests, energy dependence and migration control must be reconciled with the protection of more open and fairer societies. Before it's too late, on both shores of the Mediterranean.

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