Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Political astuteness or Egg on his face?

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, whose outrageous statements and actions have long entertained supporters and opponents alike has apparently made another one of his blunders. Yesterday he claimed on national TV that Italy had set September 2005 as the date to begin withdrawing the Italian troops in Iraq, in agreement with Great Britain. Says the BBC:

Mr Berlusconi told Rai state television: "In September we will begin a progressive reduction of the number of our soldiers in Iraq." He said the exact numbers would depend on the Iraqi government's ability to deal with security. "I've spoken about it with Tony Blair and it's the public opinion of our countries that expects this decision."

Tony Blair has denied these assertions in the House of Commons, and has forcefully reiterated Great Britain's commitment to seeing the Iraqi operation to its natural conclusion, when the Iraqi security forces will be able to take over.
On first sight it seems Berlusconi has gotten himself in trouble again. However, I suspect that is not the case, and the Times (of London) has gotten the wrong end of the stick. Berlusconi knows exactly which side his bread is buttered on and when it counts he needs to give these people satisfaction. There are upcoming regional elections, and following the Sgrena/Calipari snafu and another recent military casualty he needs to distance himself somewhat from Iraq. Therefore he gave the mass audience of the popular Porta a Porta program the impression that Italy is withdrawing from Iraq, period, in September 2005 (mentioning briefly that Iraqi security forces will be ready to take over by then) and this is really all that counts. Blair will have to extricate himself from the false impression these statements give of his government's policy, the newspapers will cry foul because Berlusconi made explicitly false statements on TV (the withdrawal was not agreed with the UK), but the mass of Italian voters will only remember that he said the troops are coming home (he actually said they will start coming home), and that is all Berlusconi really cares about. In this regard it is a stroke of political genius. He has often made outrageous and often demonstrably false claims, but countering a statement made on prime-time TV is never as effective as the statement itself. What he is actually planning on doing he certainly won't tell us on national television. Years of Berlusconi rule should have taught all of us a lesson: never underestimate his marketing abilities.
It should also be noted how the anti-war Anglo-Saxon mainstream media is downplaying Blair's statements. The BBC says "Blair plays down Italy troop move"; at the moment My Way, the New York Times and the Washington Post don't even mention it. Blair isn't downplaying anything: he is explicitly contradicting what Berlusconi explicitly said. See the Italian papers: Corriere della Sera says "London corrects the prime minister," and La Repubblica says "Blair denies Berlusconi statement." It is funny how the lefty Anglo-Saxon media will do anything to put the American effort in a bad light, even play into the hands of one of their sworn enemies: Berlusconi, while the Italian lefty media hate him so much that they will focus more on making him look bad.

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