Italy shifts back to the camp of EuropeROME Kofi Annan thanked Italy. So did George W. Bush. And on Tuesday, as he stood on a ship carrying the first Italian peacekeepers to Lebanon, Romano Prodi, the new prime minister, could take pride that his nation had played the key role in overcoming Europe's hesitation to put its soldiers at risk in the Middle East.
"Bush was very warm, thanking me for leadership, for having pushed the European team," Prodi said in an interview Monday, recalling a recent telephone conversation.
But for all the points Italy scored for bravery - pledging 3,000 troops to Lebanon last week when France made a first offer of just 200 - the nation's new leaders are also using the moment to declare a new course not embraced entirely in Washington.
After five years of unusually close relations between Bush and the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, the new center-left leadership is shifting Italy back to the camp of Europe - and at the same time pushing for a stronger, more united Europe as a counterbalance to America.
The United States and Israel supported the Lebanon mission. But that seems almost incidental when Prodi and other Italian leaders talk about their reasons for pushing so aggressively, despite the risks and wavering elsewhere in Europe, for the mission to take shape.
"When the United Nations decided to engage in the area, in Europe it was clear," Prodi, for five years the European Union president, said in the interview.
"It was a moral and political issue," he added, for Europe to take the lead in stopping the fighting in Lebanon, thus carving out a stronger international role for Europe in the explosive - and geographically close - Middle East.
For all the opposition here to the war in Iraq, Italy remains generally close to America, a fact that Berlusconi used to his political advantage in keeping Italy's foreign policy in near-perfect alignment with the United States.
"I am on whatever side America is on, even before I know what it is," he said, half-joking, as he ran for office in 2001, although he seemed to take it more seriously after the Sept. 11 attacks and as Europe divided over the Iraq war.
But with Iraq still mired in violence three years after the war began, Prodi and his government seem to have a certain freedom to distance themselves from Washington, apparently without paying a price either with voters or from the Bush administration itself. Italian leaders, political experts and even administration officials speak of a new "effective multilateralism" that Italy seems to be testing.
"Honestly, Berlusconi found himself in a different place with a stronger division of Europe and unilateralism of America," Massimo D'Alema, the Italian foreign minister, said in an interview last weekend.
"We live in a different phase and for this we are lucky, because today unilateralism is clearly in a crisis," he said. "It is finished."
And so, D'Alema, a former communist, has felt free to take shots at American foreign policy even as he cultivated what both Italian and American officials say is a warm relationship with Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state.
"If there is a little sniping and 'I told you so' going on from the Italians, it's all to the good for the United States and Italy," said John Harper, professor of American foreign policy and European studies at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna. "I don't see any obvious risks, in terms of U.S.-Italian relations."
Earlier this month, however, D'Alema also allowed a top Hezbollah official to take him by the arm when he toured bombed-out areas of Lebanon. Italian Jews were infuriated. For the center- right opposition, the moment confirmed their contention that Prodi's government - made up of disparate parties ranging from Roman Catholic centrists to far-left Greens and Communists - is essentially pro-Arab and anti- Israel.
In the same way, some in the center- right opposition oppose the Lebanon mission as not only anti-American but ineffective because, they say, Europe has never been strong or cohesive enough to provide real leadership.
"This is clearly an action intended in order to stop Israel's policy of defend ing itself and at the same time trying to show America that Europe has muscles," said Paolo Guzzanti, a senator for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. "Which is wrong, first off, because Europe unfortunately does not have muscles."
"It's a pointless show," he added. "It's: 'Hey, America, we are here!'"
Prodi, D'Alema and other center-left leaders deny that their new direction is anti-American.
Prodi described the relationship he is trying to create as "hand-in-hand" with America, but in concert with all of Europe.
"I don't think that any European country alone can have a role in the world," he said. "And so I want to create some kind of European co-action."
Other Italian leaders took care to shut out the idea that their governing coalition - or the new deployment - is biased in any way against Israel.
"Perhaps one of the rare good things that Berlusconi did during his mandate was improving relations with Jerusalem," said Francesco Rutelli, a deputy prime minister. "Of course you have more radical positions in our majority, but we are firm and we will not let Israel alone."
The peacekeeping mission will be the first major deployment led by Europe since the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, an effort often criticized as weak and ineffective. And the risks in Lebanon - and thus to Italy's ambitions for greater European weight and prestige - are great: In 1983, 241 Americans and 58 French peacekeepers were killed in Lebanon in a bombing of multinational barracks.
Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador to NATO and an influential newspaper columnist, argues that those risks increase if Europe is not able to develop a coherent foreign policy for the region.
Otherwise, he said, soldiers will be put at risk for no long-term gain - and worse, may not be able to respond effectively when things, inevitably, go wrong.
"Being on the ground with a military force in a situation like that, it's just one piece of the puzzle," he said. "It's a very big job."
Prodi and D'Alema agree that any deployment must be linked to a larger solution in the region, if not right away.
"Let's use common sense," Prodi said. "Step by step. Now we have to guarantee peace between Lebanon and Israel. Then, of course, we have to start dialogue, links. But we will expand to the neighboring problems."
"Now we have to prepare the minds and the souls for that," he said.
Prodi would not say so, but other Italian officials say they believe Italy is uniquely suited to help find that solution as part of the Lebanon deployment.
Britain, France and Germany all have reasons for not wading into Lebanon, either deeply or at all. However, Italy has no colonial history in the region, and therefore no historic enemies. It also has strong ties with many Muslim nations, including Iran.
D'Alema said these strengths were likely to coincide with U.S. interests, keeping what he said would remain a close relationship with American officials.
"They have understood this - that we can be useful," he said.
Peter Kiefer contributing reporting from Rome.