Europeans Fail to Follow Italy's Lebanon Lead Italy again appeals to Europe to contribute troops to a U.N. peace mission in Lebanon. [Italy has offered to send up to 3,000 troops and take the lead if European nations help fill a 15,000-member force. Its neighbors have been slow to accept the challenge.
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Europeans Fail to Follow Italy's Lebanon Lead

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Europeans Fail to Follow Italy's Lebanon Lead

Europeans Fail to Follow Italy's Lebanon Lead

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Italy has made another appeal to its European neighbors to contribute troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. At a meeting in Brussels yesterday, members of the European Union agreed that they must provide a major contingent, but observers at the talks said no figures were mentioned. Italy has offered to lead the force and promised to send up to 3,000 troops, provided others contribute and provided both Hezbollah and Israel maintain their cease-fire. So far, most European countries have been wary of joining the mission.

The BBC's Mark Duff is in Milan and joins us now. Hello.

Mr. MARK DUFF (Reporter, BBC): Hello, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Everyone else in Europe seems to be running away from this commitment, yet the Italians seem to be pretty gung-ho about it. Why is that?

Mr. DUFF: Well the obvious answer is the Italians feel wanted. Italy is often seen as one of the minor players, although it's got one of the biggest populations, one of the biggest economies in Europe. It doesn't punch its weight compared to countries like France, Germany and the U.K. And now Romano Prodi, the prime minister of Italy, is getting calls from George Bush, Kofi Annan. Italy feels wanted. It feels important. And the other thing is that both Israel and Lebanon say they want the Italians to lead this. So for the first time in a very, very long time it's being recognized for its true worth.

MONTAGNE: But the potential on the ground in Lebanon for disaster seems rather high, which means there doesn't seem to be much of an upside for Romano Prodi. Why is he so anxious to lead this mission?

Mr. DUFF: Romano Prodi, you've got to remember, is an internationalist. You can't be the European Commission president as he was without having a commitment to - for want of a better phrase - the community of nations. He's also a devout Catholic, which again I think gives him a sense of moral responsibility that he should lead his country in doing the right thing. Over the past few months, Romano Prodi has made a big play of stressing to Italians that they need to grow up, that they need to stop behaving like children on domestic issues like paying their tax. I think this offer to lead the operation in Lebanon, knowing full well that it is something of a poisoned chalice, chimes in in the international arena with what he's trying to do at home.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Italian public has been strongly opposed to Italy's involvement in Iraq. Is it supportive of this new mission in the Middle East?

Mr. DUFF: You're quite right. They turned out in hundreds of thousands to protest against Italian troops being sent to Iraq under the previous government of Silvio Berlusconi. So far there's been a resounding silence as regards protests here to any commitment of Italian troops to Lebanon. But if things go badly, that could all change.

But I think there's a big difference from Iraq. Prodi can sell the mission to Lebanon as almost humanitarian in nature. And Italians are not backwards in putting their hands in their pockets to help people in difficult situations around the world. They've got a great record in terms of private charity, particularly church charities, helping people in emergency situations. And I think Romano Prodi is building on that.

The other thing to bear in mind is that Italy today is not the country it was in terms of foreign policy and maturity I think that it was when it went into Iraq. Nineteen Italian military police and soldiers killed at a place called Nasiriyah, their base in southern Iraq. That was a rite of passage, I think it's fair to say, for Italy. When the bodies of those soldiers came back, they were treated as national heroes. So Nasiriyah itself was a watershed, I think it's fair to say, in the Italian public's perception of the role that its soldiers, its country could play in the current, very dangerous world.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, Mark, has the Italian military weighed in on the idea of sending a large force to southern Lebanon?

Mr. DUFF: The Italian military has a very good record of peacekeeping operations. That said, over the past couple of days, some generals - acting and former generals - have started to emerge to express doubts over the practicalities and the seriousness of the commitment that Italy could be getting itself involved in.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. The BBC's Mark Duff speaking to us from Milan.

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