The war in Iraq might be a long way away geographically but the political dangers are close to home. Most Italians are against using war to disarm Saddam Hussein and for more than two months a vast majority of them has told opinion polls that it does not want an attack on Iraq, even with the support of a second UN resolution. This means that like British and Spanish leaders Tony Blair and Jos Maria Aznar, Silvio Berlusconi has to convince his own people that support for American action is justified.
It is not easy and so far he has not succeeded, despite hedging his bets by emphasising the importance of the UN. Predictably the lefts position has been consistently against the war. President Ciampi has also tried to rein in the prime minister and insists on respect for international organisations. More dangerous for Berlusconi is the Catholic opposition, which spreads all the way from the pope to the most radical fringe. There is also a strong section of his own electors, especially on the far right, that is against an attack on Iraq.
Unlike Blair and US President Bush, who are conviction politicians with strong religious beliefs, Berlusconi is a pragmatist, a man who looks primarily at interests: his own, his coalitions and his countrys. At the moment he is playing for high stakes, even higher than in his fight not to be convicted by the Italian courts of bribing a judge. So far he has managed to stay on top of the situation but the real problems are still to come.
Last year he doubled as prime minister and foreign minister and tried to raise Italys profile on the international scene. In many ways he succeeded with his slap-on-the-back, first-name diplomacy. He established a good rapport with both Bush and Blair, and at last months Anglo-Italian summit the communion of views and interests was there for all to see. With the US the common goals are less obvious but cordial relations help both governments. If all goes well for Berlusconi in the conflict with Iraq, Italy would come out of it as a strong second-line player, with a supporting role both militarily and politically. There could well be economic advantages in the reconstruction of Iraq and cheap oil would be guaranteed. When Italy takes over the European presidency in July it would be able to oversee not only the new EU constitution but also the reunification of European views in a post-war atmosphere of relief. All this with very little division within Italy. There might be some resentment towards the overwhelming force of the US but not much would rebound onto Berlusconi.
This scenario could go seriously wrong as time passes. There was a massive anti-war demonstation in February involving a wide swathe of Italian society. Since then there have been attempts to stop American military material being moved around Italy to be loaded at the Tuscan port of Livorno. Camp Darby, the American supply base between Livorno and Pisa, has become the focus of protest while the ports bishop and the Democratici di Sinistra mayor have joined their voices in protest against the citys facilities being used by the US army.
This type of protest is bound to increase if and when the open war begins in the Arabian Gulf, and it will not be limited to the left and the no-globals. If it were, then Berlusconi would have little to worry about, as he would gain more sympathy from his own supporters. However, the Church is giving the protest a moral and political respectability the government cannot ignore.
On Ash Wednesday, to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, more than half the members of parliament fasted for peace, meaning that a significant number of centre-right deputies and senators were involved. The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano had the banner headline Pace followed by: You dont count the popes weapons, you weigh them. Vatican diplomacy has been more active than at any time in recent history. The pope has sent envoys to Saddam Hussein and Bush and has received visits from Blair, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Saddams deputy Tariq Aziz. Berlusconi himself made an impromptu visit to the pope at the beginning of March.
Away from the diplomatic front, Italy is involved militarily in addition to being an American supply base. Specially trained mountain troops, the Alpini, are deployed in Afghanistan, enabling US troops to move to the Arabian Gulf, while the Italian air force has surveillance aircraft flying out of Turkey.
Within Italy there are two possible pitfalls for the government: the economy and security. The price of petrol went up at the mere thought of conflict, and if the war is long and messy it will not come down again quickly. Many analysts forecast continuing sluggishness in the economy or even a downturn in the event of war. As for security, if there is Islamic terrorist activity here, even if it is not directly linked to the war, public perception will make the connection. The result could only be negative for a leader who promised a vibrant economy and safer streets.
Almost two years into his mandate, Berlusconi is having to face issues which have nothing to do with his personal interests, and the wheel of fortune is spinning fast.