A European Peace Plan for Iraq

Would Europe and Iraq be better positioned if Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ruled in Baghdad?

August 11, 2003

Would Europe and Iraq be better positioned if Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ruled in Baghdad?

Silvio Berlusconi sure knows how to cause a furor on the European stage. In a recent episode, he insulted a German politician by suggesting he would be great at playing a concentration camp guard in a movie.

Yes, Mr. Berlusconi has long been an embarrassment to Europe. But that is in sharp contrast to his standing in the White House.

There, he is well-liked. While the European Union as a whole has been sharply split on the U.S. military action in Iraq, Signore Berlusconi has been a staunch supporter of President George W. Bush's efforts to oust Saddam Hussein.

So how could the Italian tycoon-cum-politician help the Bush Administration? It all starts with the realization that the U.S. military and financial resources are stretched increasingly thin — and may become thinner as the occupation of Iraq stretches indefinitely.

To help out their president — and to patch up his strategic miscalculations — some U.S. commentators have been calling on Western Europe to help rebuild Iraq.

Not surprisingly, since both France and Germany have been snubbed by the White House in the run-up to the Iraq war, they are not eager to contribute to the clean-up.

That's a pity. In addition to more resources, what Iraq needs in the reconstruction process is a leader for whom the boundaries between business and government, public policy — and private profit are entirely fluid.

Over the past two decades, Mr. Berlusconi has amply proven to be this kind of man. What Europe should do in the ancient tradition of killing two birds with one stone, is to recommend him for the job of Governor of Iraq.

After all, Iraq needs a tough leader to replace Saddam Hussein — and Mr. Berlusconi certainly has that reputation. In fact, his Italian nickname, Il Cavaliere, means The Knight.

Even before developing his politics through ambitions, the multibillionaire proved to be a skillful navigator in the thickets of Italian bureaucracy. He built a media empire in a country where — before the so-called "Berlusconi decree" of 1984 that launched his business empire — broadcasting was not run as a competitive business.

Moreover, Mr. Berlusconi is highly experienced in the matter of building a nation. This is something Iraq desperately needs in order for the numerous tribes and religious sects to finally cohabit peacefully.

Come to think of it, Italy — with its tribes (read: regions and principalities) — is probably just as ungovernable as Iraq, with its various tribes and religions.

Mr. Berlusconi helped strengthen the sense of nationhood by using Italy's favorite sport — soccer. He is the owner of the highly successful AC Milan club. And his political movement is called Forza Italia! — Forward, Italy — the world-famous call of the Italian national team's tifosi (fans).

In addition, Mr. Berlusconi is now running his country's affairs for the second time. His first term in office, in 1994, was short-lived. But his second has lasted since May 2001.

For any Italian Prime Minister, that is a huge achievement, surpassing the average life of a post-World War II government by a long shot.

Berlusconi's ambitions are helped by Italy’s already deployed troops in Iraq. All he needs to do is beef up this presence with additional troops, to complement the strong U.S. presence.

However, there may be risks involved, based on historic precedent. Italians have compiled a notoriously poor record in fighting colonial wars. Under Mussolini, they tried to take over Ethiopia, Libya and Albania — and got a bloody nose in all three countries.

Mr. Berlusconi may want to prove to the world that a democratic Italy can succeed at the task of nation-building.

Mr. Berlusconi must also be mindful of the experiences of Il Duce. After the incident at the European Parliament, Berlusconi — whenever he ventures to other European capitals — is certain to be hounded and ridiculed by the press even more than he is now.

The same was true of Mussolini. While popular at home, the Fascist leader avoided traveling abroad. There, his idiosyncratic manner and blustering rhetoric often became the butt of jokes in the local media.

Those risks aside, the plan of sending Mr. Berlusconi as a kind of Roman proconsul to Iraq has its undeniable merits. Mr. Berlusconi could prove to his friend George in Washington what a great man he really is.

The Europeans, for their part, could claim that they have provided a tough man to unify Iraq — while also getting rid of an EU President they do not hold in high esteem.