Obama, Berlusconi To Meet At White House
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today, President Obama welcomes Italy's prime minister at a meeting in Washington. Silvio Berlusconi arrives amid a scandal that's front page news in Italy. It centers on questions about his relationship with a teenage starlet. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on a meeting that the prime minister has wanted for some time.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The Italian premier did not get off to a good start with the new administration when he described the president-elect as young, handsome and well tanned. And at the G20 photo op in London, Berlusconi could not hide his eagerness to meet the new American leader…
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
POGGIOLI: …while Queen Elizabeth could not hide her irritation over the loud outburst.
Up to now, the Obama administration had kept Berlusconi at arm's length. But as host of the Group of Eight industrialized countries summit next month, Berlusconi has finally been granted a meeting with the president.
Ms. LUCIA ANNUNZIATA (Political Analyst): I think it's very important because he feels that his relationship with the United States is very iffy.
POGGIOLI: Political analyst Lucia Annunziata is convinced the Obama administration is not keen about the Italian prime minister.
Ms. ANNUNZIATA: They personally don't understand Berlusconi and his lifestyle, and they just don't think he's the best ally.
POGGIOLI: Berlusconi arrives in Washington after having been dogged by questions from the European media over the nature of his relations with a young woman, the apparent cause of his wife's decision to seek a divorce. He's been embarrassed by the publication of photos taken at his sumptuous Sardinian villa, showing young, topless women and a top ranking European politician in the nude.
Berlusconi has accused the international media of acting as tools of the Italian leftist opposition. And after his party suffered an unexpected setback in last week's European parliament elections, the Italian prime minister sharpened his accusations.
Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: It would be best not to have an opposition and media that spreads pessimism, defeatism and tales of economic catastrophe, Berlusconi said. And he called on Italian businesses to stop advertising in media outlets that follow that pattern. Berlusconi also hinted at what he called a subversive plot to overthrow him.
Analysts say the Italian prime minister's greatest fear is international isolation, and so they say he's eager to mend fences with the Obama administration.
Berlusconi is expected to bring assurances that Italy will enlarge its military contingent in Afghanistan, although it's not clear whether with fighting troops or with trainers. He may also announce Italy's willingness to take some Guantanamo prisoners. Berlusconi will also try to present himself as an international go-between, thanks to his close friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Italy's role as a prominent trading partner of both Iran and Libya, whose leader Muammar Gaddafi just completed a long and flashy visit to Rome.
But political analyst Annunziata says the Obama administration has no need for Berlusconi's mediation or that of any other European leader.
Ms. ANNUNZIATA: The real problem Berlusconi has - and other people, too - is that they haven't realized that Obama has this rich policy. It doesn't mean that he doesn't care about Europe. He cares, but it's very low in his interests.
POGGIOLI: But for the Italian prime minister and media-savvy tycoon, just being photographed inside the Oval Office standing next to the new president will been an achievement in itself.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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