The resignation of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi underscores the difficulty in Europe of governments trying to support US foreign policy on terror while at the same time pleasing their own publics.
Mr. Prodi, who has been in office less than a year, stepped down Wednesday after he was unable to convince his parliament of the "profound difference" between sending Italian troops to Afghanistan and sending them to Iraq. Italy currently deploys 1,950 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission of some 30,000 soldiers from European states.
The Prodi drama came hours after Britain and Denmark announced the start of troop withdrawals from Iraq – a blow to the White House as it deploys an additional 21,000 soldiers to stabilize Baghdad. In a further departure from perfect alignment with US policy in the Middle East, British prime minister Tony Blair also said this week that he will consider dealing with the Palestinian group Hamas as part of a new "national unity" government in the occupied territories.
European capitals are wavering over how to deal with a US administration in its final two years, one saddled with multiple inconclusive wars and battles against terror.
Yet despite the crisis in Italy, and general dislike in Europe for US tactics in fighting terrorism, a fairly clear distinction continues to exist in elite circles between US-led Iraq and Afghan ventures.
Those distinctions have both practical and legal foundations: While a defeat of the US in Iraq might be troubling for the West, an accompanying defeat in Afghanistan would be "catastrophic," says a Brussels-based European diplomat.
"The war in Afghanistan is seen by Europeans as having a real basis in the events of 9/11, under UN rulings of the right of self-defense," says Adam Roberts, a professor at Oxford University, "and this is seen as different from the war in Iraq.
"In Afghanistan, efforts at transformation are multilateral, as distinct from Iraq," he adds. "In Afghanistan, 2 million refugees have returned, whereas in Iraq, 2 million refugees have left. There is still a strong tendency to draw these distinctions, despite European concern over US policy, which is very widespread."
The center-left Prodi government in Rome was always fragile, a nine-party coalition whose main agreement was its dislike of the previous center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi. Prodi decided to resign, it appears, after he was unable to achieve supporting votes from within his coalition for Italy's troops in Afghanistan or to follow through on a two-year-old deal with Washington to expand a military base in Vicenza.
Still, growing negative perceptions in Italy over the US enterprise in the Middle East has been eroding many distinctions in the public mind between the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to French analyst Bernard Getta. Such perceptions deepened last week when a judge ordered that 25 suspected CIA operatives stand trial in Milan for kidnapping an Islamist cleric in 2003 and sending him to Egypt. On Feb. 18, tens of thousands of Italians marched in Vicenza.
In Britain, Mr. Blair's announcement Wednesday that he would forces in Basra by 1,600 as part of what may be a complete drawdown by the end of 2008 reflects a broad consensus about Iraq.
Blair emphasized the difference between relatively safer conditions in Basra and those in Baghdad, suggesting that British forces had played their part, and that "the next chapter ... will be written by Iraqis." But the Iraq deployment is increasingly less popular. Blair spoke with his heir apparent, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, sitting to his left; Mr. Brown is regarded as willing to take a more independent position vis-à-vis the White House.
In the case of the Palestinian territories, the US has said it won't deal with a unity government unless it abides by conditions set last year by the Quartet mediating group – Russia, the US, the EU, and the UN – that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel.
In Denmark, which will bring home all 460 ground troops from Iraq by summer, public opinion generally distinguishes between Iraq and Afghanistan, says Mogens Jakobsen, who runs Epinion, a polling firm in Copenhagen.
As in Britain, the Iraq war is losing traction among Danes.
"The British withdrawal gave the Danish government a window of opportunity to get out," Mr. Jakobsen says. "Popular support ... is dropping, and it is more difficult for the government to explain to the people why they are there. So the British action was a kind of fig leaf for the Danes."
In the past year, some Danes have become skeptical of their Afghan role. Mostly, this is over tensions with the US created by a Danish policy not to turn over Afghan prisoners to US forces. A perception exists that US troops have sometimes tortured prisoners in Afghanistan. But "the Afghan war is not ... high on the agenda of opposition," Jakobsen says.
Europe's pushback stems partly from frustration that until recently the US had not worked closely with its allies on the Continent. Yet most European foreign ministries, from Britain to Germany to France, are working closely with US allies on Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear question, and the Middle East, and are now considering a controversial US missile-shield for central Europe.
Italy has had 61 governments in 62 years; its parliamentary system is rife with squabbling parties that often take uncompromising positions. It remains unclear whether the government will disband, leading to new elections. That would pave the way for another run by Mr. Berlusconi.
Thursday, however, President Giorgio Napolitano began polling parties to determine whether a new government can be formed in the immediate future.