Aside from the two superpowers, whose superpower most observers believe to be waning, there is a third, potential superpower haunting Western Europe — which is Europe itself. If only it could get it together. And what better occasion to get together than to protect “our oil” from the awful ayatollahs?

Last September 15, a fleet of eight Italian warships, including three minesweepers and three frigates, set sail for the Gulf, amid cheers and protests. On the eve of the sailing, Defense Minister Valerio Zanone explained the strategic significance of the controversial decision: “it establishes a European connection outside the geographical limits of NATO.”

The November 18 International Herald Tribune hailed the Gulf deployment as “an initial exercise in trans-Atlantic division of labor, a formula often discussed as a way of bringing US and European power to bear in Third World crises.” Rounding up European warships for forays into the Gulf is meant to set a significant precedent: European power projection outside the NATO area. It was this prospect that endeared the idea to a whole elite of trans-Atlantic world-shapers ranging from Edward Luttwak to Eugenio Scalfari.

In a September 10 editorial in his influential daily, La Republica, Scalfari stressed that “Europe should be able to try out for the first time a common attitude whether in the field of foreign policy or of defense.” By unfavorably comparing Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democratic foreign minister, to Count Cavour, Scalfari expressed the hope that the Gulf might do for united Europe what the Crimean War had done for united Italy. That war broke out in 1854, when Britain and France backed the Ottoman Empire’s rejection of a Russian protectorate over Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem. Unconcerned by this remote casus belli, King Vittorio Emanuele of Piedmont and his prime minister, Cavour, agreed in January 1855 to send 15,000 Piedmontese troops to fight alongside the Western allies, thereby gaining the allies’ support for the subsequent unification of Italy. The descendants of the Risorgimento see the Gulf expedition as offering comparable opportunities to forge a powerful united Western Europe.

One of the contradictions in this project is that the hypothetical European superpower can be built only out of the European countries themselves with their particular ways of doing things. Italy’s way of doing things makes it the quintessential secondary power. As the Crimean episode illustrates, modern Italy has known from the start that it can accomplish nothing by itself. In times of war, Italy has striven to locate the winning side in order to jump aboard. Since the bad experience of World War II, the Italian constitution has banned all but purely defensive operations.

Italy’s policy in the Middle East has long been to stay on good terms with everybody, if possible. The Catholic left has fostered a particularly sympathetic approach to the Third World. Especially since the “historic compromise” of the early 1970s, this policy has had the support of the Italian Communist Party. In contrast, the so-called “laic area” of Italian politics represented by the small bourgeois parties (the Republican, Liberal and Social Democratic Parties, as well as Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party) is largely allergic to Andreotti’s brand of Catholic unction. They dream of being able to exercise the strong, resolute, manly action of a “serious” state such as France.

As an exercise in improved modern statecraft, the Gulf expedition was flawed from the start. It began not as a strong expression of Italian — or European — foreign policy, but as a rattled capitulation to bullying from Washington.

Initially, Andreotti resisted US pressure. He even got the June 1987 Venice summit of rich industrial nations to endorse his policy of using the United Nations to seek an end to the Gulf war. But the United States kept up the pressure, backed by Italian media and lay political forces, especially the Socialists who were eager to eliminate the “Third Worldism” that they perceived to be the last vestige of the “historic compromise” between Christian Democrats and Communists.

On July 31, US Ambassador Maxwell Rabb by-passed Andreotti to deliver a letter from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to Valerio Zanone, the new Liberal defense minister. Weinberger wanted Italy to send minesweepers to the Gulf. The new prime minister, Giovanni Goria, and Andreotti still said no. Throughout the summer, Italian newspapers led by La Republica attacked Andreotti for cowardice.

It took an inflated “incident” in the Gulf to push the Italians into the water. On the night of September 3 an Italian container ship, the Jolly Rubino, was slightly damaged by bazooka shots fired from a motor boat. The media — led by La Republica — went wild. The Italian cabinet decided the very next day to send a naval task force to the Gulf. Editorialists rejoiced. Italy was acting like a real world power again instead of like a priest hidden in a confession booth.

The Communists as well as the smaller left parties — Democrazia Proletaria, the Radicals and the Greens — opposed the intervention. In the senate, Domenico Rosati, a former leader of the Catholic Workers Organization, defended the “Catholic objection” to all preparations for war and neglect of peace-making efforts. Rosati noted that this was the first time an interventionist position had been imposed on the Christian Democrats from outside, and saw the risk of Italy going from “the role of the first of the persuaders to the last of the dissuaders.”

In Rinascita (September 19,1987), Rosati noted the “real clanger”: that relaxation of efforts to seek peaceful solutions would mean a change in relations with peoples in the Third World from “dialogue” to “military conditioning with a gendarme function in defense of an order no better than this one.” Italian Socialists dismissed such “peace loving” as a sort of Catholic-Communist “nationalism” that, by making Italy “different,” would cut it off from Europe and the West.

The fatal flaw in the grand scheme of the hard-nosed realists, though, was the absence of any clear idea of precisely what all those warships were trying to do. Oil was not immediately involved. Italy gets its Gulf oil mostly through pipelines. When Zanone suggested at the start that the mission’s “strategic” purpose was to project European power beyond the NATO limits, other members of the government promptly contradicted him, insisting that the Italian war ships were sent to protect Italian shipping, period.

White House strategic consultant Edward Luttwak then came along and said the real purpose was to influence Iran by implicitly threatening military action, even invasion. Later on, Zanone himself, on one of his trips to the Gulf to cheer on the sailors, found another justification for the mission: it was “raising the prestige of the Italian Navy throughout the world.”

Cooperation between the various Western navies remained minimal. For all the talk of “protecting the freedom of navigation,” each navy offered protection only to its own flag. Formally, the Italian frigates and minesweepers were in the Gulf to protect Italian merchant shipping. But by the end of the year, they had not found a single mine to sweep. Naval escort or no naval escort, Italian shipowners were staying out of the Gulf simply because insurance rates were too high. Some critics speculated that only arms dealers could still afford to send container ships into the Gulf. In any case, the only thing the expedition actually defended was the Italian arms market, by parading some of Italy’s shipyard products in and out of Gulf ports. Italy hopes to sell similar vessels to Iraq and other Arab states.

It was an expensive form of advertising. The Italian parliament refused to vote extra credits for the expedition. The government initially went ahead and allocated 51 billion lire (about $50 million) for the first three months, but constant maintenance problems added to the final bill. With the mounting costs of the mission eating up funds earmarked for future modernization, the military establishment itself was ready to call a halt.

In three months, the mission failed to prove that a European superpower was any more realistic a project than peacekeeping through the United Nations.

How to cite this article:

Diane Johnstone "Italy to the Gulf—and Back," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).
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