No beating about the Bush

Why so few demonstrators rumbled the American president in Rome.

Dominic Standish

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Topics Politics

In the days before US President George W Bush arrived in Italy, there were expectations of mass protests and harsh criticism over his war in Iraq.

‘I hope the American president gets the same welcome in Rome as his colleague Richard Nixon received in 1969’, said Luca Casarini, a leading member of the Disobbedienti opposition organisation. Nixon, who visited Italy at the height of protests against the Vietnam War, was greeted by violent demos.

Most Italians opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq and many have called for Rome to withdraw its 2,700 troops, the third-biggest contingent in the occupation of Iraq, after the USA and Britain. Opposition to the war grew after 19 Italian soldiers were killed in November 2003 and a security guard was killed in April 2004.

‘On June 4 people from all over the country will come to Rome to confront the two war makers. The Italian anti-war movement expects a massive protest’, predicted John Catalinotto in the Workers’ World newspaper, in the run-up to Bush’s arrival (1).

The Italian government also feared violent demonstrations and deployed 10,000 police officers to protect Bush and his entourage (2). Officials in Rome anticipated a repeat of the violent clashes that marred the 2001 Group of Eight nations’ summit in Genoa when one protester was killed by police and hundreds were wounded, as I reported for spiked at the time (3).

Organisers said the main march on 4 June involved 150,000 protesters, but police said there were around about 25,000. Either way, the turnout was considerably lower than an anti-war protest that took place before the war began, when around a million Italians marched. This time round, only minor scuffles broke out, leading to two injures, and no one was arrested. ‘President Bush’s visit has finished positively, even from the point of view of safety and public order’, said the Italian internal affairs minister, Giuseppe Pisanu.

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi felt confident enough to declare the demonstrations in Rome ‘a flop’. Disobbedienti’s Luca Casarini complained that preparations for the demonstrations were hampered because the trains bringing protesters to Rome were delayed by several hours.

Casarini’s frustrations are understandable, given the disparity between the general expression of opposition against the war in Iraq and the low numbers of active opponents who turned up. In one poll in Italy last week, 54 per cent of those surveyed said President Bush’s visit to Italy was ‘inopportune’. More than 80 per cent of Italians opposed the war in Iraq, according to Time magazine (4).

Yet this was never a mass political movement against the war. When one million Italians marched against the invasion of Iraq, it was more a collection of atomised individuals than a collective anti-war movement.

The highly individuated character of the opposition to war can be seen in the popularity of displaying Pace (peace) flags from windows and balconies. These flags seem to represent a statement about individual identity as a peaceful person, rather than a political opposition to the war and occupation (5). In fact, the anti-Bush demos were limited by an endorsement of such individualised anti-war protest by the main political parties opposed to the government. The leaders of the centre-left parties recommended that people should not participate in the possibly violent demonstrations and instead display peace banners in their windows.

As the demonstrations against Bush had a limited impact, it was left to Pope John Paul II to put the president under pressure. But Bush didn’t seem too worried about facing the pontiff, arriving 15 minutes late for his Vatican audience. ‘Pope blasts Bush on recent events in Iraq’, ran an Associated Press headline (4). But the text of the meeting between the pontiff and Bush reveals little more than indirect criticism.

‘Mr President, your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land’, the Pope said. ‘In the past few weeks, other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all.’

It is possible that these remarks were directed at alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners by US troops at Abu Ghraib. They could also be taken to include other atrocities, such as the kidnapping of foreign civilians in Iraq by Islamic militants and the beheading of American contractor Nick Berg. However, even Bush himself has expressed regret at the abuse of prisoners. The Pope’s comments appeared to share Bush’s concerns, rather than challenging the president over Iraq.

Indeed, the Pope gave his support to the interim government established in Iraq and, like Bush, endorsed the ‘speedy return of Iraq’s sovereignty. It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalised as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the UN organisation’.

In addition, he thanked Bush for other policies, especially the promotion of family values. According to Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls, ‘there was an agreement on the UN involvement for a return to normality in Iraq, on the efforts of US agencies for the different countries of the world, especially in Africa and for what the President does with his administration in favour of the defence of the family and the promotion of life’.

Finally, Bush presented the Pope with the presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award. Thanking Bush for the medal, the pontiff said: ‘God bless America.’ Harsh criticism, indeed.

Dominic Standish (dstandish@europe.com) writes for many media organisations, including the Italian National Press Agency, ANSA.

(1) Mass protests expected in Italy, France, John Catalinotto, 10 June 2004, reprinted from the Workers World newspaper

(2) Italy Braced for Violence during Bush Visit, Philip Pullella, 1 June 2004, Reuters

(3) The Genoa Tales, by Dominic Standish

(4) ‘Berlusconi’s U.S. Blues’, Jeff Israely, Time Magazine, 14 June 2004

(5) Italy’s flagging war, by Dominic Standish

(6) Pope Blasts Bush on Recent Events in Iraq, Tom Raum, 4 June 2004, The Associated Press

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