On March 21, 2007, we went to the Italian Parliament to get a tour and to meet Mr. Umberto Ranieri, President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies (similar to the US House of Representatives).
He discussed Italy's foreign policy priorities, which were to strengthen the European Union, and expand it to include the Balkans and Turkey, to create stability, and the Middle East. He said that last year, in the war between Lebanon and Hezbollah, Italy sent more than 2000 soldiers to support Israel. Supporting Israel was a priority and he thinks it's a mistake for Israel to ignore the new unified government of Palestine.
He also said that the war in Iraq is a big mistake. Stabilizing Afghanistan was the way to fight terror, not to open another theater of war. And military might is not the only way to deal with Afghanistan. We need to create a functioning economy in Afghanistan so it will stabilize and people will have less incentive to turn to force and the Taliban.
I asked about the rest of the world. I mentioned that China is investing heavily in Africa, and gaining influence in Africa. Africa is geographically closer to Italy than it is to China, what's Italy's stand on all this? He said that they are increasing international cultural cooperation with South America, Africa, and Asia, but that Italy's focus in on the European Union and the Middle East.
Regarding Turkey, he said it was important to encourage Turkey's inclusion in the European Union. It will be a 10 to 15 year process, but very important. He said "If we shut the door, it will be full of risk regarding Islamic extremists. Must keept the door open and the relationship open." I'm paraphrasing here, and was glad to hear the relationship-building language and pro-Turkey language.
He had to leave to vote to authorize a budget to continue funding their troops in Afghanistan. When he returned he asked us what we thought about the Italian journalist hostage exchange.
We were very quiet. This was a very unexpected question. Walking into the meeting, none of us quite knew who he was and what the meeting was going to be about (we talked about this among ourselves afterwards). And so to be asked about, literally, a life or death question was a surprise.
Fortunately, one of the other American fellows has military experience and serves as a judge advocate general (JAG, attorney), so he stepped up to answer. He said that the US would not have made the exchange such a blatant quid pro quo, but get the hostage first, then wait a few days, and then release the Taliban prisoners. Didn't seem like much of a difference to me, but then, I'm not a diplomat or military person. Maybe the protocols are different in those situations.
After this meeting, we took a tour of the Italian Parliament. Lovely, lots of wood paneling, marble, red velvet drapes. There was a hall with portraits of the Italian equivalent of speaker of the house. Not surprisingly, the vast majority were men, but there were one or two women. One of our hosts, former European MMF fellows, said something about women comprising a growing percentage of the parliament. I mentioned that women still comprise 50% of the population, so there was some ways to go. Just as there is the US.
At some point, the conversation turned to returning antiquities. Throughout the years, colonizers and conquers have taken artifacts and monuments from one country to another. One of our guides mentioned that recently Italy did a "very stupid thing" returning an obelisk to Ethiopia. I raised an eyebrow, and Hussein asked for clarification. Italy colonized Ethiopia, Somalia's neighbor, and took an obelisk. Last year or so, the Ethiopian government asked for it back and so Italy spent 4 million Euros ($5.3 million US) to send it back.
The Italian fellow thought it was a very foolish use of money that could have been better used for food aid. However, Hussein and I said, if Italy took it from Ethiopia, and Ethiopia asks for it back, then Italy should give it back. They shouldn't have taken it in the first place!
The rest of the visit went smoothly and we caused no international incident.