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Italy: US Empire's Mediterranean launchpad

Claudio Gallo is a journalist, currently working as a Culture editor at La Stampa, where he also was foreign desk editor and London correspondent. His main interest is Middle East politics.

Published time: April 01, 2014 13:51
Ground crew and pilots prepare an Italian Eurofighter EF-2000 Typhoon at the Gioia del Colle NATO Airbase in southern Italy (Reuters / Giampiero Sposito)

Imperial soldiers cannot be judged. In Italy it’s almost impossible. In the last 15 months, the Italian Judiciary have asked to proceed against 113 American soldiers for various crimes, but the Italian minister of justice denied authorization in 91 cases.

It works like this: when the US Army wants to judge a soldier in the USA who committed a crime in Italy, they have to ask the relevant Italian minister for permission. As you have seen, Italian authorities are uncompromising! After a thorough examination they usually say ‘yes.’ At home, American judges don’t even bother to ask for case files from Italy, and the ensuing trial, although there are no statistics on this, turns out to be a rather benevolent process. This story, by Alessio Schiesari, recently featured on the first page of the Italian newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Italy is in fact a limited sovereignty Country.

“Italy appears in many respects to be a colony,” says the Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, former European MP. “On one hand it is a Vatican colony, on the other it is an American colony, an American State even, without the power to elect the president. We are a limited sovereignty country indeed. We are a kind of Batista’s Cuba with military bases instead of brothels.”

Well, the bases are obviously not simply an old gift from the Cold War, they are the claws and antennas of the Empire. Calling the US an empire is not some kind of hippie 1968 revolt jargon. If you have any doubts, read the US 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. You will see that it speaks of US military power expanding globally exactly as empires have always done in history. This is said to be in the national interest (a word that only the US can use) and, more superficially, i.e. ideologically, in the “common interest.” Obviously they never speak of aggression but always about facing global threats. To quote the DSG at its most ideological level ironically resounds as a modern global philosophy “à la Habermas”: “Across the globe we will seek to be the security partner of choice, pursuing new partnerships with a growing number of nations — including those in Africa and Latin America — whose interests and viewpoints are merging into a common vision of freedom, stability, and prosperity.”

To achieve this, the US has more than 1,000 bases around the world, plus 4,000 at home. Pressed by Congress, the Pentagon said that this network in 2012 had a cost of 22 billion dollars, but in reality no one is really capable of fathoming the depths of the US military annual balance sheet. A recent calculation by David Vine, assistant professor of anthropology at American University, in Washington, DC, guess that the real cost is around 170 billion dollars.
In Vine’s definition, US bases are the “Launch Pad” for the Pentagon’s unending war program.

U.S. Military sailormen play military music during the deactivation ceremony of Navsouth Base Headquarter in Nisida Island near Naples, Italy (AFP Photo / Controluce)

“Especially since the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001, the military has been shifting its European center of gravity south from Germany, where the overwhelming majority of US forces in the region have been stationed since the end of World War II. In the process, the Pentagon has turned the Italian peninsula into a launch pad for future wars in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond,” he wrote on Tomdispatch.com

Funnily enough, US officials insist that there are no US bases in Italy: all garrisons are inside Italian NATO Bases. As a matter of fact, in Italy there are 64 US installations, with more than 10,000 soldiers and several nuclear bombs.

Dal Molin Airport in Vicenza, where some of the population is opposing the building of the second US military base, is one of them.

Sigonella, in Sicily, is a base for drones that operate from Central Asia to the Mediterranean and as far as the Balkans.

Only 60 kilometers from Sigonella, in Niscemi, there is a base for the new MUOS system (Mobile User Objective System), an array of geosynchronous satellites being developed to provide global satellite communications narrowband connectivity for US military communications. Local people have staged several protest marches against the new base. Their main fear is that high power broadcast transmitters at mobile frequencies may cause diseases and other health hazards.

Italian General Fabio Mini, who was in charge of the South Europe NATO Command, puts it like this: “The lack of US bases in the Southern Mediterranean is a sign of the US’s strategic deficit and one of the reasons for the increasing importance of US bases in Italy.”

The Italian proclivity of depending on US power is not new. It is an old and sly habit to be servile in order to gain some advantages, like picking up the crumbs dropped from the giant US weapons market table; Crumbs that for such firms as Finmeccanica constitute important figures.

Ground crew transport weapons for an Italian F-16 Fighting Falcon at the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani in the southern Italian island of Sicily (Reuters / Alessandro Bianchi)

To see this obsequious manner at work, let’s take a look at the new Italian premier Matteo Renzi, the lastest saviour of the country. What is he doing to address the shameful and scandalous case of two Italian soldiers on trial in India? The soldiers, while they were officially patrolling a civil cargo, allegedly murdered two Indian fishermen, having mistaken them for pirates. The answer is that in front of TV cameras, the premier pleaded for Obama’s help during the Emperor’s Grand Italian Tour.

By ourselves we really count for nothing, we have no national pride. This is the message: please Uncle Sam help us to solve this problem, so we can go on eating pizza and spaghetti and playing the mandolin.

Since 1954, when the still classified Bilateral Infrastructure Agreement was signed, Americans have liked Italy, because the Italians don’t ask tough questions. The American military in Italy are exempt from paying tax on gasoline, gas, cigarettes, and alcohol. A measure that is not mutual as it is with German Army for example. Of course, the figures are not so huge, but it is another “act of submission” that Italians pay to their defenders. But are they really there to defend Italy? Hear what an US official - who asked not to be named - said to David Vine: “I’m sorry, Italy, but this is not the Cold War. They’re not here to defend Vicenza from a [Soviet] attack. They’re here because we agreed they need to be here to do other things, whether that’s the Middle East or the Balkans or Africa.”

Last year the Rand Corporation wrote a report, commissioned by the US Department of Defense, about the future of US bases in the world. According to Rand, the famous “pivot to Asia” and the new technologies may suggest a kind of reshaping of imperial bases, but only to a certain extent. It is interesting that, although indirectly, this is recognition of the political and symbolic role of the bases abroad. In the document it states: “At a higher level of strategic consideration, these forces have underpinned US relationships with partners in Europe. A posture that if removed would move those relationships into uncharted waters, in which it would be difficult to predict the consequences.”

In his last book, “Base Nation”, that is about to be published by Metropolitan, David Vine succinctly explains the twist of local interests behind the bases: “While bases are often portrayed as a gift of security, the new base at Dal Molin suggests that bases can be something of a Trojan horse: Once established, bases provide US officials with a powerful tool to influence foreign governments’ decisions about bases and a range of policy issues. The threat of withdrawing a base, alone, given the perceived economic damage of base closure, becomes a way to bend the will of host governments and populations (although, base closures have actually often helped local economies as experience in Germany, the US, and elsewhere has shown).”

Military Nouvelle Vague may shift the balance towards the south and the bases may have fewer soldiers and more robots. But a US permanent base must remain, because, as General Mini puts it: “Permanent bases are also the image of permanent war.” To maintain itself, the empire requires in fact a state of permanent war.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.