Berlusconi Urges Support for U.S. on Iraq


Published: December 5, 2003

ROME, Dec. 4 — Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday night in an interview here that all European countries should rally to American efforts in Iraq and described the intervention there as an important, necessary example of the West exporting freedom.


Mr. Berlusconi, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said there were many ways in which Western countries could and should promote their values, including placing economic sanctions on totalitarian governments.

But, the prime minister added, the "community of democracies" must be prepared to use force in certain cases, as it did in Iraq. He said such an approach might well require "a change in international law, which previously held that the sovereignty of a single state was inviolable."

"Today the West is the only military power, and within the West there is the incomparable supermilitary power of the United States," Mr. Berlusconi said during a 90-minute interview Wednesday night in Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister's official residence here.

"And today we ask if it should be possible, looking to the future, to intervene as exporters of democracy and freedom in the whole world," he added.

He made it clear that he thought it was indeed possible and that his mindset mirrored — and perhaps even went beyond — President Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive intervention to head off terrorist threats.

Mr. Berlusconi's stated philosophy left little if any room for the kinds of qualms expressed by so many of his European counterparts.

The wide-ranging interview came at a time when Mr. Berlusconi seems to be under almost constant fire.

Over the last few days and weeks, he has been attacked by political opponents here and elsewhere in Europe for legislation that seems to favor his vast media empire, for his emphatic support of Israel and for his recent defense of Russian policies in Chechnya.

But the prime minister seemed wholly unbowed by that and, even as he was recovering from the flu, spoke energetically and expansively, in soliloquies bereft of self-criticism and brimming with self-congratulation.

"I am only myself, a sincere person who doesn't bend to conformity," Mr. Berlusconi said in Italian. "If I have an opinion and you ask me about this opinion, I have the courage to say it."

Although several of his aides, sitting nervously nearby, piped up occasionally to try to steer him away from potentially delicate subjects or dicey locutions, he more or less ignored them.

In a Europe often hostile to the Bush administration, Mr. Berlusconi offered an impassioned defense of the United States. He said he was astonished by talk of American imperialism from the European left, adding that he had never seen any sign of it himself.

"The only territory really occupied by the United States is that in which the soldiers who died for our freedom lie," he said, a reference to American cemeteries in Europe.

He also said that, in light of the long American defense of Western Europe after World War II, it was "absolutely unthinkable for me" to decline President Bush's request for an Italian military presence to help the rebuilding of Iraq.

Asked about frequent French and German opposition to the United States over the last year, Mr. Berlusconi said the diplomatic burden of his role as president of the 15-nation European Union prevented him from responding candidly.

But, he quickly added, "Everyone should have the awareness of owing gratitude to the great American democracy."

Mr. Berlusconi did not provide Italian troops for the initial American-led invasion of Iraq, which a majority of Italians opposed. It was only after the fall of Baghdad that his government authorized the dispatch of 3,000 soldiers, police officers and civilians.

A suicide bombing in southern Iraq last month left 19 of those Italians dead, but the prime minister said his commitment to helping the United States remained steadfast.

He added that he had spoken recently to the leaders of Poland and Spain, two other countries with troops in Iraq, and that he was certain they shared his resolve.

There was no sense of equivocation in Mr. Berlusconi, whether he was cheering the United States, trumpeting his plans to transform Italy's economy or discussing, without apology, his ever-lengthening string of political gaffes.

One of them came during an address to the European Parliament in early July, when he said that a German lawmaker in that chamber would be perfect for a movie role as a concentration camp guard. The lawmaker had just publicly questioned Mr. Berlusconi's ethics.

Mr. Berlusconi said during Wednesday night's interview that his response was obviously a joke and that everyone present took it that way, even though subsequent news reports offered a less rosy appraisal.

"The whole Parliament laughed," he said. "Everyone laughed. Everyone."

Mr. Berlusconi has control or potential influence over six of the seven national networks in Italy. His family owns prominent publications as well.

Yet he insisted 80 percent of news coverage in Italy was hostile to him. He said he was constantly being satirized on television and had even been called a "dwarf."

"I'm as tall as Aznar," he said, referring to the Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, and betraying a chink of sensitivity in his armor of bravado.

"I'm the average Italian, right?" he added, looking toward an aide, who responded, "Certainly."

Mr. Berlusconi said he had been forced to act on advice from Margaret Thatcher, a former British prime minister, and ignore negative articles about him, lest they dim his enthusiasm for the big challenges he had given himself.

Early this week, Mr. Berlusconi's allies in the Italian Parliament passed a bill that could allow him, in the coming years, to expand his already vast media empire significantly. His outraged opponents said the legislation underscored his conflicts of interest as Italy's head of government and richest man.

Mr. Berlusconi dismissed that, saying his conduct over the two and a half years of his current government — he was also prime minister in 1994, for just seven months — belied any conflict.

Not once, he said, had he placed a telephone call to his own media holding company to try to influence its decisions. That company, Mediaset, is run by one of his best friends and Mr. Berlusconi's oldest son.

The prime minister insisted, as he previously had, that he had made a decision to sell Mediaset once he entered politics, but that his family begged him not to, and so he relented.

Turning to international affairs, Mr. Berlusconi expressed cautious optimism that European leaders would reach agreement on the evolving draft of a first constitution for the union at a pivotal meeting in Brussels late next week.

He acknowledged that leaders had yet to resolve some difficult issues, like the weight that different countries held in the voting process.

But he said he already had solutions to some outstanding issues and predicted that some of the countries putting up the biggest fights would come around, if only to "make a gesture to me, because they are all my friends."