Giuliana Sgrena, an intrepid journalist for the left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto who had become an icon of national unity during her twenty-eight days as a hostage in Iraq, was returning home: Italians in a high mood zapped their TVs to observe the latest from Baghdad while keeping up with the country’s spring obsession, the San Remo music festival. But suddenly word arrived that American soldiers had fired on the car in which Sgrena was traveling from Baghdad to the airport. She was wounded. The Italian intelligence officer with her, the number two of our intelligence service, died in the fusillade. The country fell from euphoria to depression.
For a few days Italy gave vent to rage against the United States. From the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to sandwich vendors on the street, everyone was asking: Why? Berlusconi, among the staunchest of allies of the Bush Administration, summoned the American ambassador to his offices at Palazzo Chigi. The usually mild-mannered Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the ceremonial president, demanded “clarity.” The leftist opposition toyed with the notion that the Americans had punished the Italians for paying a ransom for Sgrena. Through the window blown open by the clash, it became clear how far Italy had come from being the grateful ward of the United States, a people happy to accept chocolates from the liberating Americans.
On the surface, Berlusconi’s anger was understandable. Having a top intelligence operative killed by allied troops is upsetting. And it is election season in Italy. On April 3 regional governments face the electorate, and it will be a test of Berlusconi’s strength going into next year’s legislative vote. His popularity has been eroding. Italy’s economy is stagnant, and the country’s participation in the occupation of Iraq–Berlusconi provided 3,000 troops to patrol a piece of southern Iraq–has been widely opposed in Italy.
Of course, blaming the Americans is extra-convenient for Berlusconi: His government has a lot to answer for in the incident. The Italian version of events is fuzzy. Why was the car traveling at night on the dangerous airport road? When did Italian officials inform the Americans of their movements with the freed hostage? Or did they bother? The Italian general awaiting Sgrena’s arrival at the airport never informed the Americans, for example, that she had been freed, according to the testimony he gave civilian Italian investigators. And the ransom? Everybody talks about it, but no one confirms it. Does Italy’s ambiguity in fact encourage kidnapping?
To avoid answering these questions, Berlusconi jumped on the anti-American bandwagon, announcing that Italy may start withdrawing its soldiers from Iraq in September–an announcement that sounds more like pressuring the United States and an electoral promise than a real decision. It was in a way the perfect exit strategy. The joint US-Italian investigation into the shooting will not be finished, just in case, before the April 3 polls, Italian officials say.
And what of the opposition? The painful truth about the left in Italy is that it would rather score points against Washington than against the government it is trying to unseat. Only briefly has anyone questioned Berlusconi’s competence in handling the Sgrena case. The left was equally charitable in an even more egregious disaster–the car-bombing of Italian troops in the city of Nasiriya seventeen months ago. The troops were unprotected by the high concrete barriers common throughout Iraq. Seventeen soldiers and two civilians died. Yet the left has made no effort to pin responsibility on the government, although the defense minister had received intelligence reports with direct warnings about attacks on Italians. The opposition contented itself with the usual calls for United Nations oversight of the occupation, the common denominator of the divided left’s position, which ranges from backing of the Americans to calls for an immediate withdrawal.
This may all be bad news for Washington, in that it shows that anti-Americanism has become a convenient way for both right and left to cover their inadequacies. But it is also bad news for European politics. The knee-jerk blame placed on the United States for a disaster, and the implicit shedding of responsibility by the Italian government, with the blessing of the opposition, undermines the notion of accountability. Italy is a country where it is traditionally difficult to get anyone to take responsibility for anything. The blame-Uncle-Sam gambit just makes irresponsibility–on issues as important as war and peace–a deadly game.