Italy’s responsibility in Libya
WASHINGTON -- As the debate intensifies on the sustainability of the intervention in Libya as a transatlantic effort, there is a country that should feel a particular responsibility for the success of the mission and use all its resources to influence the outcome -- Italy.
As Libya’s largest European trading partner, Italy has the most to lose, after Libya itself, from a failure to stop the ongoing civil war. It is also the country that had gone furthest among Western partners in establishing ties with the Libyan regime before the unrest, in part as a way to overcome a difficult colonial past (Libya was an Italian colony from 1911 to 1943). Finally, Italy faces the Libyan coast just across the sea from Sicily, and is therefore most exposed to the flows of immigrants and refugees. Although Libya in many ways relates to Italy as Mexico relates to the United States (with all the due proportions), in the recent international debate, the Italian voice has hardly commanded the attention it needed. This was largely unavoidable -- after the revolt, the Italian government has faced the most challenging tradeoff of all European partners between protecting its interests and endorsing political change in Libya. This tricky balancing act, for which Rome was apparently not prepared, has prevented full engagement in the crisis.
The result is that Italy now finds itself catapulted into a war in its neighborhood, led by others, and of which too many things remain unclear, including the final objectives beyond the intermediate one of protecting the Libyan population through the establishment of a no-fly zone. To its credit, since military intervention started Rome, has done its part, correctly assessing that Italy’s involvement in the military effort will give it a say on the future settlement. Italy is not only providing several military bases -- making the Italian peninsula resemble a single gigantic aircraft carrier in the middle of the Mediterranean – but is also employing its jets. In order to give Italy and other European allies greater say in the operations, the Italian government has been pressing for a transfer of the mission’s command to NATO. While these moves go in the right direction, Italy should take the lead in an overlooked area -- the future settlement and recovery. Precisely because of an unenviable record of historical responsibilities, from the dark pages of the colonial era to the more recent business with Muammar Gaddafi, if it finds the necessary honesty, Italy, more than any other European country, can draw larger lessons from its experience in and with Libya, providing valuable insight on how the Libya of tomorrow may look and how Europe and the United States can deal with it. It was Italy that united Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1934 and that, therefore, better knows the limits of what was in many ways an artificial construction and what can now re-emerge as a permanent division. Although the French recognized the Benghazi rebel movement first, the Italian foreign ministry had initiated an engagement with the opposition to Gaddafi before intervention started that looked promising based on Italy’s longstanding local contacts.
As military operations go on, Italy should work hard, possibly harder than its allies, to ensure that an assistance plan for Libya will be in place and that the Libyan people will find all the international support they might ask for to build the independent, equitable Libya to which they aspire. Italy owes it to the Libyans – and to its own national interest.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.