Italy's Balancing Act

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 25, 2006

ROME -- The prime minister hates air conditioning, an aide warns as the door opens to Romano Prodi's sweltering office in the Chigi Palace. But the newly installed Italian leader quickly goes over to close the breezeless windows and switch on a cooling unit for the comfort of an American visitor.

The moment captures the spirit of a major task Prodi has undertaken in his first month back in a job he savors. Despite his own leftist predispositions, he seeks to reassure and comfort a Bush administration that is still in mourning for Silvio Berlusconi and for the strong support the defeated conservative politician gave the United States in Iraq.

Prodi is pushing ahead, willingly, with the decision that Berlusconi made, reluctantly, while still in office to withdraw the 2,500 combat troops now in Iraq by the end of the year. But Prodi has also moved quickly to say that Rome will continue to work with Washington through NATO, and with the new Baghdad government, to seek stability in Iraq by noncombat means. The message is that Italy will not go soft on security issues.

Prodi dispatched Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema to Washington to say that formally to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on June 16, and he repeated the thought informally in our extended conversation here last Wednesday.

Speaking in accented but clear English, Prodi said that "the conflict of civilizations must be tackled with knowledge and cooperation" as well as with security policies. Europe in general and Italy specifically share U.S. concern about jihadist terrorism, he noted, adding:

"Public opinion in Europe is not anti-American," even though there are many protests and negative comments about U.S. policy. What motivates the protests and negativism "is maybe fear, deep fear, the idea that we are so close to this area of fire. . . . After all, it was fear that guided us against the war in Iraq, and it is fear that guides us against terrorism as well."

Rice offered some reassurance of her own to D'Alema, diplomats say. She stressed her desire to keep U.S.-Italian relations solid despite the change in government and expressed hope that Italian development specialists would, as promised, lead a provincial reconstruction team as part of her "clear, hold and build" strategy for Iraq. The Italian commitment is under review here.

Japan announced last week that it was also withdrawing its military contingent from Iraq after three years. Like Rome, Tokyo promised to provide more help in other areas, such as logistics and training.

Both moves underlined the reality that increasingly the United States heads a split-level coalition in Iraq. American and British troops undertake nearly all the combat duties while other partners look for less risky roles or just depart. That may explain why President Bush was in Europe last week pressing for more financial aid for Baghdad, and why the administration must develop or augment coordinated noncombat help from partners willing to play any role at all.

Prodi voiced confidence that his leftist and far-leftist coalition, which squeaked to victory in April's parliamentary elections by 24,000 votes instead of the predicted margin of 1 million, would support his efforts to maintain a strong Italian voice in NATO.

"My coalition is wide, but it is not an exception in the modern democracy. I work with an electoral program of 281 pages that we all agreed on. It was clear about Iraq, but it was clear about NATO and it was clear about the United States. . . . People in the coalition respect the agreement they signed." And, he added with a wry smile, "Nobody wants elections" again anytime soon.

This is Prodi's second tour in the 16th-century banker's mansion in central Rome that serves as the prime minister's office and residence, and he seems determined to show that there are second acts in life for Italians, whatever F. Scott Fitzgerald said about Americans.

Owlish in manner and appearance, he answered questions with a verve and focus that had been absent in our last meeting two years ago, when he was head of the European Commission in Brussels. Then, he was cranky, obscurantist and preoccupied in a job that many felt did not suit his particular talents.

For the head of a faction-ridden coalition that has a paper-thin majority, maintaining balance is everything. Prodi shows a flair for that challenge. But as we ended our conversation in a cavernous office that had been little cooled by the belated air conditioning, the thought came that more than gestures will be needed to dispel the Bush team's concerns about the Italian left's intentions.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company