After celebrating its 150 years of unity on the quiet, the Italian Government chose to add a very particular touch to the festivities: a war in Libya. An almost nostalgic conflict: Libya had been conquered by Giolitti in 1911, “pacified” by Mussolini right after the war, and it was the main Italian front during the Second World War. This time though, the reasons are much different.

Let’s set the record straight: only a gullible person might think that the current attack on Libya by some NATO member countries could actually be motivated by “humanitarian” concerns. Of course, Gaddafi is a merciless dictator with his enemies, but he’s not any fiercer than most of the dictators in other Arab countries, some of whom have been already overthrown (Ben Ali and Mubarak), while others are still governing and are stoking the flames of war (the autocrats of the Arab Peninsula).

According to the former Libyan deputy ambassador to the United Nations, there’s a “genocide” in the making; this statement is a blatant exaggeration. It’s possible, or even more probable, that Gaddafi repressed the first demonstrations against him (like it has been done by all the other Arab rulers), but the idea of his resorting to air assault (!) to clear peaceful demonstrations is incredible enough to almost make unnecessary the disclaimer put out by the Russian army (who monitored the events by their spy satellites).

It didn’t take long before peaceful protests turned into an armed rebellion, and at that point it became impossible to still talk about “repression of protests”. Even if, for a few more days, western journalists continued to define as “peaceful protesters” the men who were taking control of cities and entire regions, while showing them armed with rifles, artillery and tanks (obtained from army divisions and perhaps from foreign sponsors as well).

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Barack Obama on 19 March 2011: “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries … The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Since then, Gaddafi has surely had recourse to planes against the rebels, though the numerous journalists have been unable to document any attacks against civilians. Same story for the allegations of “mass graves”, based on a single picture portraying four or five open tombs in an identifiable cemetery of Tripoli, which was immediately shelved due to its scarce credibility.

The civil war unfolding between the rebels and the Tripoli government was – as far as we know – not very fierce, since the daily victims could be counted on the fingers of one or two hands, and it was drawing to an end. The problem is that, in the eyes of some Atlanticist nations, “the wrong side” was winning. History – in Krajina, in Kosovo, even in Iraq – has taught us that external military interventions usually cause more victims than the ones attributed to the actual or alleged “massacres” that they pretend to stop. For instance, in Krajina NATO’s “humanitarian” bombing enabled Croatia to expel a quarter of million of Serbs: one of the most successful “ethnic cleansing” operations ever made in Europe, or at least in the last decades.

Therefore, the real reasons for the intervention are strategic and geopolitical: humanitarianism is just a pretext. On this site, it is possible to glean the real reasons motivating France, the US and Great Britain. Reasons that, after all, are easy to guess. Here, we will dwell on the choices made by the Italian Government.

Let’s start from the beginning. Before the riots erupted, Italy enjoyed a privileged relationship with Libya. First of all, Italy is Tripoli’s largest trading partner, constituting the main market for Libyan exports and the first exporter to Libya. Italy buys almost 40% of Libya’s exports (its second main buyer, Germany, gets only 10%) while selling to Libya 18,9% of its total imports (the second main seller, China, provides not much more than 10%). Libya’s trade dependence on Italy is strong, but this relationship represents an even greater strategic value for Rome than for Tripoli.

Libya owns the biggest oil reserves (good quality oil) on the whole African continent and is geographically close to Italy, therefore it is naturally Italy’s main, or one of the main, energy supplier. Italian state company ENI extracts from Libya 15% of its total oil production; through the Greenstream pipeline in 2010 Italy received 9,4 billion cubic meters of Libyan gas. ENI’s contracts in Libya are still valid for 30-40 years, and despite Italian behaviour, which we are about to analyze, Tripoli confirmed them on March 17th through the voice of oil minister Shukri Ghanem. Currently Libya grants all contracts for infrastructure building to Italian companies, assuring billions of orders that impact positively on Italy’s employment market. Lastly Libya, which is a relatively rich country thanks to its energy exports (it has the highest per-capita income in Africa), invests in Italy most of its “petrodollars”: currently it is involved in business transactions with ENI, FIAT, Unicredit, Finmeccanica and other companies. A fundamental contribution of capitals in a trend characterized by a lack of liquidity, after the financial crisis of 2008.

All this makes of Libya, from our point of view, a unique case among the oil producers of the Mediterranean and the Near East. Almost all, in fact, have privileged economic ties with the U.S. and the U.K., with French or Asian energy companies.

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On 2nd March, 2009 the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between Italy and Libya initially signed by PM Berlusconi and Col. Gheddafi on August 30th, 2008 was finally enforced. In June, the Libyan leader was invited for his first official state visit to Italy.

The Italian-Libyan relationship was sealed in 2009 with the Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation Treaty, signed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi but resulting from negotiations conducted by former governments, including leftist governments. This treaty – besides reinforcing the cooperation in a numerous areas – bound the Parts to reciprocal obligations. Among these, we can name:
– the mutual respect of «sovereign equality, and all the rights inherent therein including, in particular, the right to freedom and political independence» and the right for both of the Parts to «choose and freely develop its own political, social, economic and cultural system» (art. 2);
– the agreement «to not resort to threat or the use of strength against the territorial integrity or the political independence of the other Part» (art. 3);
– the abstention from «any form of intrusion, direct or indirect, in the national or foreign affairs that fall within the other Part’s jurisdiction» (art. 4.1);
– the assurance that Italy «won’t use, nor authorize the use of its territory in any hostile action against Libya» and vice versa (art. 4.2);
– the agreement to peacefully resolve the disputes between the two countries (art. 5).

So Italy arrived at the outbreak of the Libyan crisis as an ally of Tripoli, tied to Libya by the clauses – written down in black and white – of a treaty, stipulated not a hundred years ago but in 2009, and not from a former government but from the incumbent one.

The Italian attitude, during the last weeks, has been uncertain and embarrassing. At the beginning Berlusconi stated that he didn’t want to “disturb” colonel Gaddafi (February 19th), while his Foreign minister Frattini was haunted by the spectre of an “Islamic emirate in Benghazi” (February 21st). Very soon, though, the riots seemed to overcome the authority of the Jamahiriya and the Italian attitude changed: Frattini inaugurated the hike-up of the alleged victims, announcing 1000 bodies (February 23rd) while Human Rights Watch was still counting a few hundreds; Minister of Defence La Russa (we don’t know by what specific area of expertise) announced the suspension of the Italian-Libyan Friendship Treaty, a totally arbitrary and illegal measure (February 27th). Gaddafi reversed the situation though, moving to reconquer the territory that had fallen in rebel hands. As Gaddafi’s troops advanced, the Italian warmongering seemed to subside: minister Maroni invited the US “to cool down” (March 6th). But the United Nations Security Council resolution of March 17th, starting the Atlanticist attacks on Libya, caused an abrupt change in Italian diplomacy: the government immediately authorized the use of its bases and planes to bomb the former “friend” and “partner”.

It’s only too evident that in this event the Italian government displayed a very irresolute attitude; if anything, it manifested a pronounced inclination to waver depending on the evolution of events, trying time and again to bet on the probable winner. Just like in other recent foreign policy occasions, the Prime Minister appeared absent, letting his ministers dictate, or at least communicate the Italian position to the nation. The ambivalence displeased both the Libyan government, which expected a friendly position from Rome, and the Cyrenaican rebels, who received concrete support from France and the UK but surely not from Italy.

In the end, the Friendship Treaty, sealed only two years ago, has been trashed and Berlusconi gets ready, even if just under the aegis of the United Nations, to begin its war against Libya.

Whatever will be the outcome of this conflict, Italy has already lost its Libyan campaign. Italian leaders celebrated the 150 years of unity with a glaring about-face towards Libya: a tragicomic new edition of the tragedy of September 8, 1943. This time it won’t be Italy, but its former “friend” Libya’s turn to descend into a long and painful civil war, which could have been ended in a few days without external intrusions.

It’s just not honour and reputation that are at peril though. The contracts and oil supplies – regardless of how the conflict will end – will probably shift, most of them if not all, from Italian hands to other countries. In case Gaddafi wins they will end up with the Chinese or the Indians; if the insurgents win they will go to the French and the British; on the other hand if the Libyan civil war persists there won’t be much to pick up. Except for waves of immigrants and destabilizing influences for the whole region.

Translated by Giuliano Luiu, revised by Voltaire Network

* Daniele Scalea, editor for “Eurasia” and scientific secretary of IsAG [an Italian institute of geopolitics], author of La sfida totale (Rome 2010). He is co-author, along with Pietro Longo, of a forthcoming book concerning the Arab riots.

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