Italy and Silvio Berlusconi face Libya dilemma

Muammar Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi meet in Rome, file image, November 16, 2009
Image caption Muammar Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi previously enjoyed a close relationship

Italy once ruled Libya with an iron fist. Now it is facing tough questions about its handling of the current Libyan uprising, and its dealings with current strongman Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, reports the BBC's Duncan Kennedy from Rome.

As doctors know, diagnosing a disease is sometimes easier than agreeing on how to treat it.

So the West now finds itself accepting that Col Gaddafi is a major problem, but agreeing on ways to remove him is proving more troublesome.

The current talk is of a no-fly zone to put pressure on the colonel.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates suggested Italy and France could take the lead in such a venture, as their shores are close to Libya.

Rome's first reaction was symptomatic of the less than unified Western response to this crisis. The defence minister said Italy could not act on its own, and that this was a matter for both the UN and Nato.

But a more general dragging of Italian feet has been evident in other areas, too.

As the initial violence took hold in Libya's streets, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was condemned for saying that he did not want to bother the Libyan leader with a phone call.

The defence minister later said Italy did deplore the violence, but that it had "interests to defend" in Libya and the country needed to adopt a "prudent" stance.

Italy gets a quarter of its oil and about 10% of its gas from Libya - but those supplies have been cut amid the turmoil.

Italy's interior and foreign ministers seemed equally cautious at first, painting Libya not as a military priority but a humanitarian one.

They conjured up disturbing predictions of mass unchecked migration from Libya into the EU - suggesting it would be of biblical proportions with as many as 300,000 fleeing to Europe.

Other EU capitals said Italy was over-reacting to a crisis that had yet to materialise, but the Italian worries had been registered.

The right medicine

That said, in recent days Italy has been playing catch-up with the more robust approach favoured by some.

It has suspended its friendship treaty with Libya - the deal signed in 2008 which amounted to an official apology from Italy to its former colony.

Under the treaty Italy had agreed to pay $5bn in reparations in return for greater Libyan co-operation on stopping illegal migration.

Italy's resistance to a no-fly zone has also softened in recent days.

Rome now says that imposing such a zone over Libya remains an important option.

But note the tone contained in the language: "important", not yet "imperative".

This is not just diplomatic semantics. The Italians say that further reflection is needed as a no-fly option would significantly escalate the level of the international community's intervention.

Over the years Mr Berlusconi has paid a political price for his closeness to Col Gaddafi.

But he has claimed that Italy and the West would benefit from his nurturing of a rogue state back into the international community.

And no-one doubts Italy's commitment in all this. The Italians are loyal partners in Nato, the EU and the UN. Just this week an Italian soldier was killed in Afghanistan.

But the Italians are also highly nuanced practitioners of real-world politics, a world where they say their interests cannot be ignored.

Italians and their political leaders share the moral indignation currently being felt as Col Gaddafi drags his country into a hellish morass.

But they argue that such outrage does not always translate into sensible, effective policy.

As a doctor might put it, you could end up killing the patient if you prescribe the wrong medicine.