A new US-Italy Security Partnership

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By Lucio Caracciolo

October 7 is not derived from February 24, but it still rhymes. It confirms that American introversion prompts challenges to the divided West and opportunism to those who profit from chaos in order to expand. Such is the case with Iran. The strategic dimension of the Hamas pogrom inside the Jewish state is inflaming the Iran-US-Israel challenge. The game is being played in the Greater Middle East, extending from the intersection of the Black Sea, Caspian Sea, and Caucasus – the Russian, Turkish, and Persian imperial crossroads – eastwards as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan, westwards as far as the Eastern Middle Ocean extended to the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, via the Suez, Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz Straits. Italy, with its eyes set on its destiny, will see its interests (free and open Middle Ocean, avoiding collision with Chaosland, and stabilisation of the near abroad) threatened there. This would confirm the urgency of Euroquad, the Western-Mediterranean core that serves as the lowest common denominator for asserting oneself in the uncontrollably expanding fray.

The future of the area – calling it region would fail to grasp its entropy – depends on the outcome of the clash between the US-Israeli couple and Iran, which relies on selected clients. The goals of America and Israel are to contain the expansion of Iran’s empire and to keep it by all means from gaining access to the Bomb. Iran’s dream is to force the US to retreat to the Egypt-Cyprus line and isolate Israel. But not to destroy it – Israel is the perfect enemy, useful to legitimise the “axis of resistance”, the lintel of Iran’s sphere of influence between Western Afghanistan and the Levant, with both Shia and Sunni Arab clients. In the meantime, Turkey is asserting its decisive weight, ready to put it on this or that plate of the scales, while the Saudis and the Gulf petro-monarchs are adapting to every balancing act so as not to be crushed by bigger contenders. Russia enjoys the American ‘distraction’, which leaves Ukraine in a desperate condition. China, which unlike America extracts essential energy resources from the region and develops silk sea route ports of call there, flaunts (dis)honest matchmaking, training its diplomatic muscles with a view to a possible hegemonic future.

In the Middle East, Washington is therefore at the classic crossroads. Shorten the fronts, while withdrawing from Iraq and Syria where it is an easy target for pro-Iran militias, at the risk of aggravating the Israel crisis, facilitating Russia’s penetration and China’s influence. Or go back in, guns blazing, admitting the failure of the gradual disengagement disguised with the paradox of ‘leading from behind’, postulated after the ‘war on terror’ disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the latter case, the star-studded overextension would unravel monstrously: hot war against Russia, tepid veering to boiling war against Iran, cold but decisive war against China – to say nothing of North Korea. All of which are commitments of military intensity inversely proportional to the strategic priorities set by Washington. All the while the only frontier that really interests the American public is the Rio Grande, on will possibly determine the outcome of the race for the White House.

As if that were not enough, the axis with Israel has cracked. On the surface, because Biden considers Netanyahu a personal enemy at home: one of the leaders of the Republican Party, as well as the most disastrous Prime Minister in the history of the Jewish state. Below the surface, in Biden’s eyes Netanyahu is behind the rift between the strategies and tactics typical of a couple going through a nervous breakdown. Washington was under the illusion that it could manage the Middle East from afar, counting on the understanding between Israel – seen as a kinsman rather than an ally – and the Saudi-led Gulf – considered as unrelated snakes. Hamas’s attack on Israel and Jerusalem’s reaction (deaf to the US administration’s calls: “do not repeat our mistakes”, i.e. no “war on terror”) have broken the bank. And the result is more chaos in Chaosland. The only major state in the area that has seemingly been spared the nightmare of disintegration is Turkey. All the others, including Iran and Israel, are fighting for survival. It’s a deadly Russian roulette, with Ankara a revolving door between Ukrainian and Middle Eastern entropies feeding off each other.

Italy counts for very little in a space in which it had been influential until the early 20th century, and then again during the Cold War. It will be a case of re-learning some forgotten lesson of Italy’s Levantine ancestors, capable of weaving oblique relations with local powers, more or less Ottoman. For example: economy and trade are not ends in themselves but necessary means to gain geopolitical weight, which in turn opens up new markets. The strategic objective would be to help avert the clash of civilisations between West and East, of which Italy would be among the first victims. In this case, Italy stands with the United States and Israel. But together with many others, the Italians know that a potentially atomic war against Iran would set fire to Italy’s backyard, killing off all possible navigation over the waters that open ocean routes for Italy. The Red Sea crisis – where the Houthis are selectively blocking trade along the Suez-Bab-al-Mandab corridor and back – is a moderate announcement of what would happen in the event of all-out war in the area. It would be the equivalent of a naval blockade for the Italians – a disaster to be prevented with the help of classical friends and allies and also less classical ones, such as the Turks. If only for the fact that the Turks are active and ambitious throughout Italy’s foreign neighbourhood, from Tripolitania to the Adriatic Balkans via the Levant and mid-oceanic hubs, a “lambda” that from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas descends southwards, with the western leg planted in former Libya and the eastern leg between Suez, Israel and the Levant. These are the hinges of the system on which Italy stands and which give sense and breath to its Euro-Mediterranean profile.

Finally, Israel. With other Europeans, along with the geopolitical interest the Italians have a historical responsibility towards the Jewish State. And this simply speaks – very badly – of the Italians. Added to this removed or, worse, algebraically ritualised reality is the guarantee offered to Palestinians under occupation, who contend with the Israelis for a space they both feel is theirs.

Until October 7, between Israeli and Palestinian leaders – who were divided on almost everything – an unwritten understanding held sway: no one would attempt to solve a problem that could only be solved by the annihilation of one or the other people. Or of both of them. The asymmetry between Israel’s power and the weakness of the divided and stateless Palestinians left Jerusalem wide margins of manoeuvre on how to interpret this limitation, while at the same time expanding the colonies in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). And subcontracting Gaza to Hamas, thereby regulating the influx of Qatari money to keep the Strip in precarious survival, but strictly separated from the West Bank confetti entrusted to the ghost of the Palestinian National Authority – thus keeping the West Bank under Israeli control. With October 7, this balance has been shattered. And the yearning for decisive victory, the watchword of Israeli strategists, resounds.

We do not know how much Hamas, or rather its military wing, had calculated the consequences of the attack on the kibbutzim and Israeli military posts around the Strip. But the ferocity of that totally unexpected massacre produced such a shock in Israel that it made it fall back into the Gaza trap, from which it had emancipated itself in 2005, when it had thought of suffocating the Palestinian issue under eternal mothballs. Irrespective of warnings from America and part of Israel’s military leadership, Netanyahu unleashed the collective punishment of the Gazans, branded as “human animals” by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. It also revealed the bewilderment of Israeli leaders, who did not imagine Palestinian terrorists technically capable of such an operation. As Israeli General Giora Eiland explained to Limes, the right-wing and ultra-right-wing coalition in government has inflicted serious damage to Israel’s image and credibility by launching a very harsh reprisal inside Gaza instead of limiting itself to controlling the Philadelphi Corridor and isolating the Strip to force the enemy to surrender: “We feel like victims of October 7, a ruthless, cold attack. Instead, everyone now sees us as executioners.”

A whole new chapter has opened in the age-old dispute between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. No one knows nor can know where it will end. Having swept away the two-State chimera, a hypothesis that never existed but still suited everyone, three possibilities remain by definition: one State, none, or ‘one hundred thousand’.

In the first case, Israel would formalise the fact that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there is only one State: its own. The rest are occupied territories, eroded every day by the push of settlers. This is supposed to establish what quota of Palestinians is tolerable in the nation-state of the Jewish people. The rest will have to emigrate, spontaneously or otherwise. As a foretaste of this project, a festive demonstration was held in Jerusalem on January 28, attended by 12 ministers, to announce the re-colonisation of Gaza. Complete with a map detailing the settlements. Communications Minister Shlomo Karhiha coined the concept of ‘imposed voluntary emigration’ for the occasion. The outcome of the conflict unleashed by Hamas must therefore consist of a degree of ethnic cleansing determined by mere power relations.
No states would instead be the consequence of a conflict extended not only to the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, but also to Iran and the United States with their respective associates. Not excluding the use of the Bomb. All Middle Eastern borders would be disrupted and redrawn or would end up outside the range of any State entity. Israel and the Territories as they are today would no longer exist. An unlikely, not impossible, scenario.

‘A hundred thousand’ means the paroxysmal tribalisation afflicting the people of Israel, prophetically denounced by former President Reuven Rivlin in 2015. In the months leading up to the war, there was a proliferation of federalisation, cantonisation, and various parcellation projects, carved out with a scalpel in the Jewish state’s meagre space. From the confetti of the West Bank to the confetti of Israel. Ethno-cultural-religious homogeneity would determine the partitioning of perceived heterogeneous territories. A taste for carving up has always animated projects to reconfigure the narrow disputed spaces. As was the case in the Eiland Plan for Gaza, which in the 2008 version envisaged enlarging the Strip to a slice of Egyptian Sinai in exchange for a piece of Negev (the Paran region) assigned to Cairo and 12% of the West Bank annexed to Israel. Or the eight Palestinian emirates between Gaza and the West Bank, the brainchild of former intelligence officer Mordechai Kedar.

The attempt to solve the insoluble invites self-destruction. But Pandora ’s box has been opened. This charges all the variously influential players in the area with responsibility. Italy included. Leaving it to weapons to impose geopolitical profiles that will always be contested by the losers of the moment means sliding into permanent war. Which could be potentially suicidal. So much for a decisive victory.

Italy is not a superpower, agreed. But what is preventing Rome from proposing itself, in agreement with consenting countries, as the place to elaborate a diplomatic management of the crisis? And to do so on the basis of its own draft discussion that is possibly less haphazard than the Mattei Plan? No facile ecumenism. It’s just pure egoism on the part of a country that would pay a possibly fatal price to the permanent destabilisation of the eastern Middle Ocean.

Let us reconnect knots and threads to derive an operational proposal, on which we solicit criticism and counter-proposals from readers: a special bilateral agreement between Italy and the United States. To keep Italy above the waterline during the Great War and prefigure less unstable balances in the immediate post-war period.

The idea would seem counterintuitive. The crisis of the American nation has destabilised the empire, to which Italy somehow belongs, and fomented the ambitions of rivals and/or opportunists. It seems to us all the more reason to confirm Italy as a member of the Western club, or what remains of it, and to help prevent its implosion, but not as an inert appendix, amid humiliating servility and petty opportunism. Passivity and cunning are tolerable, sometimes enjoyable, in peacetime. Not in the midst of climate change.

It would disprove the well-founded cliché that Italians never end wars with those who started them. And it would disprove the Ardrey paradigm, a brand that is not exactly palatable, a stereotype much more widespread than Italians like to tell themselves.
And then, what would the alternative be? Proclaiming themselves neutral when the Scandinavians march compactly into NATO, while the Swiss and even the Austrians debate whether to drop the act and join the Atlantic club? Or move under the Papal flag, protected by the Swiss Guard?

Finally and most importantly, scrolling down the list of Italy’s four existential interests, one sees that none can do without support or at least benevolent abstention from America.

Some will argue that the Americans don’t care about a special understanding with Italy. This is false. Or, to put it better: it is true when the Americans were hegemons, not today when they suffer from diurnal nightmares and don’t know who to count on. This is normal: a superpower attracts while it is a superpower, not when it looks like the rats are about to abandon ship – or vice versa the ship unloads the rats. In Washington, the strategic agencies that do not wish to attend their own funeral are studying how to reduce overexposure by evacuating unsustainable or secondary positions and sharing with ‘friends and allies’ the management of the indispensable ones. They are willing by necessity to pay market prices, if not inflated by the customer.

The special arrangement does not affect Italy’s relevance to NATO, even though many Americans and some Italians consider it a burden, not a resource. Especially in war. In fact, Washington conceived NATO and continues to operate it as an umbrella governed by asymmetrical bilateral pacts. Americans are the pivots, the rest of the allies are spokes. Now the umbrella suffers the storm and the protégés do not trust the protector too much. An attitude reciprocated with interest.

The intersection of reciprocal needs implies the revision of the secret treaties governing military and strategic relations between Italy and the United States – stuff from the 1950s. Prehistory. Unequal pacts, not even negotiated with the little Italy that had just been scrambled by the peace treaty and saved by the Americans, but against the British who would have gladly divided Italy up into zones of occupation in order to then take control of Sicily and section off the rest of the country. As a first step of the understanding Rome should agree with Washington to overcome the post-war pact regime – if not now, when? – and inaugurate a new regime consistent with the change of season. A regime that would include public protocols. Which does not exclude secret codicils, even though wisdom would dictate that if they are such it is better not to make their existence known.

So far the form, which is substance; then the geopolitical experimentation. As it happens, the critical areas where the Italians would most need limited support and open American blessing are those from where Washington does not want to evacuate but for which it cannot or will not bear the costs. From the Balkans including Ukraine to the central (Strait of Sicily) and Eastern Mediterranean, from North Africa to the Sahel. Italy would have to put significant economic, diplomatic, and military resources on the table. In return, Washington would have to offer logistical and intelligence support, but above all explicit support for the Italian commitment, against possible sabotage by ‘friends and allies’. At the same time, nothing would prevent the Italians from spending in the Lambda the network of privileged relations with the Euroquad and Turkey, perhaps contributing to Franco-Turkish pacification from which everybody could profit. On this basis, it would be useful, for example, to help avert the installation of a Russian base in Cyrenaica (Tobruk?), which in conjunction with the one in Tartus in Syria and possible others along the Red Sea would threaten the security of the Middle Ocean. This security is vital for the Italians and important for the Americans.

If the special arrangement worked, Italy would have laid a small but very useful stone in the foundations on which a new pan-European balance would be built. This balance is Italy’s medium-term strategic goal. Among other things, it is a necessary exercise to get the West back on track in a prolonged lurch, right on the principle of ‘every man for himself, none for all’. If this failed or were aborted, Italy would be left with the choice between permanent tensions in the near abroad, prolonged conflicts of varying intensity at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, and world war. If it continued to revel in the certainty that nothing could be done and yet it might survive not so badly, Italy would end up stranded in a few years… on the Northern shores of Lake Victoria, where perhaps the Baganda will save it.

Translated by Dr Mark A Sammut Sassi.