Berlusconi on trial
MILAN Italy is one of the world's largest economies. It is a major European democracy. Some of its bases are being used for military action. It was Libya's closest ally in Europe. It should have been playing a leading role in resolving the crisis. It isn't. Its attention lies elsewhere, in a courtroom in Milan.
Later today the trial begins of the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. It will receive worldwide attention. Italian papers and news channels will devote huge space to it.
The prime minister is charged with paying for sex with a minor - a nightclub dancer called Ruby, who at the time was only 17. She attended his residence 13 times. He is also charged with abusing his position by intervening with the police to get her released from custody after she was detained for the suspected theft of £2,600.
The trial will throw a spotlight on the parties at Berlusconi's villas. Around 40 women have been called as witnesses. The prime minister will be accused of having sex with a "significant number" of prostitutes. He allegedly gave them and other women cash, gifts and some were housed in apartments he owned.
Berlusconi himself denies any wrongdoing. He dismisses the allegations as the work of politically motivated judges. "I am the most accused man in the history of the universe, "he says. He will not appear on the first day of the trial, which will be largely given over to discussions about schedules.
In public il Cavaliere (the Knight), as he is known, exudes confidence. He throws out asides like chaff, or a boxer's jabs. Only this week, while visiting the island of Lampedusa, he joked about his reputation. He said a pollster had inquired as to how many women on the island would sleep with him - 30% said "yes", he told a small crowd, and 70% said "what, again?"
Many Italians are ashamed by this, but others admire him: self-made, defiant, with an uncanny instinct for what matters to ordinary Italians.
It is almost certainly true that in no other major democracy would a leader survive this: the severity of the accusations about sex with minors, the housing of party girls, the friends who are accused of being procurers and of women being delivered like "parcels".
It is a trial that risks becoming a show. Some witnesses may embrace the chance of a publicity shot, with the court steps a catwalk of notoriety. The evidence too may descend into a sleazy plot of women encouraged to dress as nurses and police officers, of sex acts in the bunga bunga basement, all featuring "veline" - wannabes, reality show contestants and the vulnerable.
Berlusconi may strangely relish the challenge. Maria Latella knows him well and has written about him. She says all his persuasive powers will be directed less at the judges or the press but at the Italian people. He always believes he can win people over.
Many doubt the trial will bring him down. There will be frequent delays and his lawyers, at every stage, will challenge the court's jurisdiction. His battle for survival will intrude on Italian politics; parliamentary time will be consumed as he seeks immunity and questions whether the court in Milan has the authority to judge him.
His poll ratings are down to 30%. But that compares well with other leaders who are not facing such serious allegations. In a divided land, with no convincing alternative leader, he could yet survive.
A few months ago I found that many believed that if elections were held he would still emerge as winner. That now appears less certain. He could survive the trial, but it is less likely he would win another election.
Internationally he is sidelined. There are stories of other world leaders declining to be photographed with him. When he turned up at a recent summit in Paris, which launched attacks on Gaddafi's forces, his arrival was met with laughter by the large gathering or reporters.
Berlusconi will not be troubled by the media. He appears unmoved, certain of his ability to out-fox anyone and beat the system.
Meanwhile Tornados fly from Italian bases, the great Arab awakening the other side of the Mediterranean is fragile, the zealots grow in confidence, boats are landing thousands of migrants on Italian shores, demonstrations are planned over Italy's unemployed and the crisis in the eurozone lies dangerously unresolved - and Silvio Berlusconi, facing four trials, remains Italy's prime minister.