In the first days of December under the chilly skies of Astana, Kazakhstan, a tired-looking Hillary Clinton was making the rounds of the OSCE summit, mopping up after the WikiLeaks revelations. No one there can have been more thrilled about the photo-op and the boilerplate reassurance of friendship than Silvio Berlusconi, wearing heavy makeup and looking like a victim of the mortician’s art. At home in Italy, things are not going well for Berlusconi. For days, hundreds of thousands of high school and university students and university-level researchers have been demonstrating, occupying the Tower of Pisa and the Colosseum, pitching their tents on the rooftops of sixty universities from Trento to Catania, blocking highways and train stations and marching with the CGIL, Italy’s largest and most left-leaning labor union, in a huge demonstration for jobs. Following the lead of laid-off workers and even immigrants who have been staging rooftop sit-ins, the students are protesting the savage budget cuts hitting the Italian social state—in this case schools, universities and academic research—as well as the bleak prospects for the young in a country where one-third of those under 24 are unemployed, and starting jobs are short-term and severely underpaid.
On December 14 Berlusconi faces a confidence vote he looks less and less likely to survive. His former ally Gianfranco Fini, who split from the governing People of Liberty Party, taking thirty-five MPs with him, has announced a pact between his group and other center-right parties to vote no on December 14. But things are bad all over Italy, between the devastating floods in the north and the garbage that sits in huge, pungently stinking heaps on the streets of Naples. Several ancient walls in Pompeii collapsed into rubble during November rains. Italians can’t stop humming “Bunga Bunga,” a funny, caustic song about the prime minister’s fabled sex parties, parties they learned more about recently when one of the guests, an underage Moroccan pole dancer, got arrested for something else.
So when they learned from the WikiLeaks cables that US diplomats in Rome had referred to Berlusconi as “feckless, vain and ineffective,” a man fatigued by late nights and “wild parties,” no one was much surprised here. The fact that he was so fatigued that he actually fell asleep the first time he met the current US ambassador to Rome, David Thorne, didn’t astonish those who have seen Berlusconi nod off frequently on state occasions. Nor were Italians shocked to learn that their premier was considered Vladimir Putin’s “mouthpiece in Europe,” and was known to exchange lavish gifts with the Russian prime minister. What in the United States is called the Putin-Berlusconi “bromance” is pretty ho-hum here.
As some Italian observers saw it, the quality of the information in those cables was altogether mediocre and revealed how little Americans understand about a changing world order. Barbara Spinelli, in La Repubblica, spoke for many when she said the dispatches should embarrass the State Department because “they didn’t contain any carefully matured ideas, or offer well-thought-out suggestions or prognoses,” but were mere snapshots that seem obvious, “fragmentary and even dangerous for their sources.” EU parliamentarian Giuseppe Arlacchi, writing in l’Unità, said the authors of the cables “view Iran solely as a country to attack, Russia as a hostile entity, Europe as a pact among the spineless.… [The Americans] think they govern the world and haven’t realized that by now scarcely anyone grants them that prerogative.”
Still, the leaked cables are, as the days go by, raising new questions here. Clinton had asked the embassies in Rome and Moscow to look into any “personal investments” Berlusconi and Putin might have that could be their foreign and economic policies. From Moscow came reports that the two rarely included their diplomatic staff when they met, that both tended to see those meetings as opportunities to do business one-on-one.