August 18, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

The Grandeur That Is Rome; Italian Courage in the War on Terrorism

Those who fear that America has no European allies should pay a visit to Rome.

Actually, one should seize any excuse to go to Rome – to view the architecture and art, to sample the food and wine, to gaze at the women, to taste la dolce vita, to… sorry, I digress.

The point is that Italy today has a government that views what is happening in the world not as French President Jacques Chirac and Michael Moore do — but as most Americans do.

This was driven home to me during a series of interviews I recently conducted in Rome with senior Italian officials and with the U.S. ambassadors to Italy and the Vatican, Mel Sembler and R. James Nicholson respectively.

“We are committed to fighting the War on Terrorism,” Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister told me. “And though it is not easy to say in Europe these days, the other main task we have before us is to help spread democracy in the Muslim world.”

How can that be accomplished? “We have to stimulate, support and reinforce those in the Middle East who believe in democracy and human rights. They are there. They are not so hard to find.”

It was remarkable to hear a European politician talk with such commitment about promoting freedom and representative government in the Islamic world. Remarkable, because sometimes one could be forgiven for thinking that France is the only country on the continent.

For his part, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi views Iraq as “the frontline in the War on Terrorism.” A top aide to the Prime Minister elaborated: “Iraq today is a melting pot of terrorist tendencies,” he said. “Every terrorist faction is represented there. International terrorists are experimenting in Iraq. We simply cannot let them defeat us. If we do, that will not be the last defeat we'll suffer.”

He added regretfully: “Too many of our allies in Europe do not understand this.” 

Berlusconi's government also disagrees with many of its neighbors on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The problem is that European policy is unbalanced,” Frattini said. “So many Europeans lean to the Palestinian side, ignoring the terrorism inflicted on the Israelis and never seeing the Israeli perspective.”

“Europe should play a role in the Middle East, in working for a peaceful settlement,” he said. “But we can't do that if Israel doesn't trust Europe, and Israel doesn't trust Europe because of this unbalanced policy.”

The Italian government is staunchly pro-American. Berlusconi has many times thanked America for spilling blood to “save us from Nazism, Fascism and Communism.” What's more, in these troubled times, he believes, it only makes sense for Europe and the U.S. to be partners, rather than rivals.

Those views are shared by British Prime Minister Tony Blair —  the most articulate advocate of what might be called a Churchillian response to terrorism.

The Free World's enemies, Blair said recently, “have faith in our weakness just as they have faith in their own religious fanaticism. And the weaker we are, the more they will come after us.”

He added: “We are in grave danger. There is a battle we have to fight, a struggle we have to win and it is happening now in Iraq.”

Other members of the “coalition of the willing” include Poland and Australia. What is notable about the members of this alliance is how they defy being pigeon-holed politically. Berlusconi in Italy and John Howard in Australia are men of the political right. Blair and his counterpart in Poland, Marek Belka, are firmly on the left. That's because the response to terrorism, the decision to defend democracy and stick with tried and tested allies, is not an issue of ideology, or party politics, but of principle.

The government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, an avowed conservative, was in this alliance. Then, in March, terrorists bombed trains in Madrid. That led to the upset election of a new government, one which promptly pulled out of Iraq as the terrorists had demanded.

Recently, a group claiming links to al Qaeda made the same demand of Italy. A deadline of Aug. 15th was set. Berlusconi ignored the demand and the deadline. This week, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades issued a statement threatening to attack “all targets” in Italy, and warning Berlusconi that he would “pay with his head for the crimes his troops committed and are still committing in Iraq.”

“They tell us, if you stay in Iraq we will hit you,” Berlusconi's spokesman said. “They tell us, if you leave we won't hit you. But it's an illusion. If we avoid this fight now, that will only mean that our sons will have to do it later.”

Italy's staying power already has been tested. Last November, a suicide truck bomb attack in Nasiriyah killed 19 Italians – the country's worst single military loss since World War II. 

Then, in April, Fabrizio Quattrocchi was taken hostage. His captors attempted to humiliate as well as murder him, but the 36-year old – whose job was to guard Iraq's oil lines – refused them that pleasure. As the terrorists pointed a pistol at Quattrocchi's head, he told them defiantly: “Now, I'll show you how an Italian dies.”

“He died what I would call a courageous death,” Frattini observed. “I would say like a hero.”

Italians are fortunate to have such heroes. And freedom-loving Iraqis and Americans are fortunate to have such friends. 

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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