(Neo)Colonial Urges

Posted on August 30, 2011


Marseilles Colonial Exhibition, 1906

“Italy, wanting colonies to exploit, was herself exploited by them”.

I stumbled across this quote by British historian D.M.Smith a few days ago while doing some research on my final year’s dissertation. It made me think how easy it is for governments to end up lured by colonial ventures. Both the old and grandiose imperial kind of the 19th century and early 20th and the new more subtle kind, ever so weary not to fall into the open exploitation of the ‘conquered’ people. Libya was an unexpected though unsurprising reminder that Western powers have not lost their lust for imperialism. Indeed, not only their lust for colonies to exploit but even their styles haven’t changed much. At least superficially.

France took the chance to gain more influence in Lybia and started a bombing campaign without waiting for the approval nor the support of NATO in order to have a say in the future of the country once Gaddafi left. Let’s not also forget that the Libyan rebels who will form the new Libyan government once the situation is stable will remember that France was the first European country to intervene, saving them from certain defeat. Britain followed shortly after and so did America. Italy showed her all too usual indecisiveness and incompetence in foreign affairs. Italy’s attitude towards the rebellion in Libya inspired me to draw comparisons with an episode in Italian history: the ‘loss’ of Tunis, in 1881. Italy had strategic and economic interests in Tunis as well as political (some 10.000 ethnic Italians had settled in Tunis during the centuries and some were influential figures within Tunisian society). France too had ambitions in Tunisia and taking advantage of some ‘incidents’ that occurred on the border of Tunis with French Algeria, occupied the country with the excuse of a punitive expedition stating they would soon leave. They never left, the Italian government was humiliated at home and the country found itself in the middle of the Scramble for Africa, aware that failure will not be forgiven by most. The lesson was learned by the two most aggressive characters in Italian foreign policy: Francesco Crispi and Benito Mussolini. Both anti-imperialists at first, they became keen supporters of overseas expansion and preferred to settle for the few regions in Africa that were still untouched by European occupation (and for good reasons) rather than to keep their hands clean.

Going back to the present events, Italy was (just before the conflict) Libya’s biggest trading partner and Libya (according to the Financial Times) supplied 23% of Italy’s imported oil. At the same time ENI (the leading Italian oil and gas company, which is partly owned by the state) was the largest single operator on Libyan soil.

I fear that, although Italy did intervene, it was too late for it to retain a leading role in the post-Gaddafi era. During the celebrations, after rebel troops reached loyalist stronghold Tripoli, people were reported to cheer for President Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy and no one cheered for Berlusconi (at least they recognize him for what he is). Humor aside, the point is that with the decades of anti-Italian propaganda with which the Libyan people were bombarded by Gaddafi’s regime, Italy missed a chance to satisfy its interests in the North African country not anymore by cooperation with one former dictator, but by cooperation with its people.

The chronic inefficiency of Italian governments may have once again damaged the country’s political position in the mediterranean and on the international stage. This inefficiency problem was clear when Berlusconi, at a press conference, stated that “Italy will not bomb Libya” while a few hours earlier the defence minister La Russa had stated the opposite, saying that Italian jets had already started hitting their targets. Not to mention that by agreeing to bomb Gaddafi’s troops, Berlusconi reluctantly agreed to wage war against a man he considered a friend and that he welcomed in Rome just a few years earlier in a fashion that reminds of the golden age of totalitarianism. Below you can see for yourself.