Europe

Leaks Shows U.S. Condescension Toward Berlusconi

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A new trove of WikiLeaks cables concerning Italy has been released by Italian media and shows U.S. officials regard Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi as something of a clown. While his relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin cause concern, his lack of gravitas is seen as useful for American interests since Italy is a unique geostrategic platform for U.S. forces operating in the Middle East and Africa.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Just days after he was indicted on charges of prostitution with a minor and trying to cover that up, Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi was hit by more embarrassing revelations.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome that a new batch of confidential cables released by the website WikiLeaks describes the Italian leader as a laughingstock, but also very useful for American national interests.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In February 2009, U.S. Ambassador Ronald Spogli wrote Berlusconi's frequent blunders and poor choice of words have offended practically every category of Italian citizens and many European leaders. Berlusconi, he added, has given a comic tone to Italy's reputation. He has become the symbol, Spogli wrote, of the incapacity of Italian governments to meet the country's chronic problems: decaying infrastructure, mounting debt and endemic corruption.

Analyst Franco Pavoncello says the cables show an excellent grasp of the situation.

Mr. FRANCO PAVONCELLO (Political Analyst, John Cabot University, Rome): The embassy certainly did its homework. Most of the kind of stuff that came from the consul general of Naples about the inefficiency of the government vis-�-vis organized crime, I think that these are all good assessments of this country.

POGGIOLI: In his cables, Ambassador Spogli said, Italy's European allies denigrate Berlusconi. We should not make this mistake, he adds. If we lead him by the hand and make him feel important, Berlusconi will prove the best possible ally.

And indeed, since 2008, Italy has become the most important American military outpost outside U.S. territory. The weekly L'Espresso, which published the latest batch of WikiLeaks cables, says there are 15,000 American military personnel in Italy, the same number as during the Cold War.

Despite widespread protests in the northern city of Vicenza, Italy gave the green light to a base expansion enabling the 173rd Airborne Brigade to deploy to three continents in a few hours. And Vicenza is home to AFRICOM, the new command for military operations throughout Africa.

In his cables, Ambassador Spogli described Italy as a unique geostrategic platform for U.S. forces operating in the Middle East and Africa. But there is one area where U.S. diplomats distrust Berlusconi, his close ties, both public and private, with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Washington has long been concerned about Europe's high dependence on Russian energy sources, and the cables revealed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked diplomats in Rome and Moscow to shed light on the exact nature of the Berlusconi-Putin relationship.

Franco Pavoncello.

Mr. PAVONCELLO: That is certainly something that they don't understand in terms of where Italy wants to go. And certainly, you know, this is an aspect that has been discussed and analyzed quite extensively also in Italy. You know, why is it that there is this strong personal affinity and congeniality between the two leaders?

POGGIOLI: The cables paint a harsh portrait of Berlusconi. But thanks to his control of most of the Italian broadcast media, public and private, news of the WikiLeaks cables has been brief and buried at the end of newscasts.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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