Bush's Italian 'Good Friend' Berlusconi Returns to Power

The billionaire makes a surprising comeback on promises to deal with Italy's economic woes.

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Silvio Berlusconi says he feels a great responsibility after winning Italian elections.

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In a political twist that pleases the White House, Italian voters this week have returned one of President Bush's closest foreign friends—Silvio Berlusconi—to power in Rome.

Berlusconi, a flamboyant 71-year-old media magnate, gave Bush important (and hard-to-get) support for his decision to invade Iraq and topple the government of Saddam Hussein. Before he was turned out of power two years ago, Berlusconi's government sent 3,000 Italian troops to post-invasion Iraq.

He also gave Bush plenty of rhetorical backing on the president's freedom- and democracy-promotion agenda overseas. Berlusconi even encouraged a pro-U.S. rally at a time when Europe was frothy with anti-Bush antipathy over Iraq and other moves condemned as unilateralist.

Bush paid Berlusconi something close to the ultimate compliment in recent years: invitations to spend time together both at Camp David and at his Crawford, Texas, "Prairie Chapel" ranch. Bush called his Italian guest "a good friend" on a visit to Crawford in July 2003.

Two years ago, however, Italian voters reacted to corruption allegations and unfulfilled reform promises by turning Berlusconi's coalition out of power, choosing instead a center-left alternative. Berlusconi's support for Bush and the U.S.-led operation in Iraq helped sap his popularity, and he was hurt in office by periodic gaffes, including such comments as the assertion that Islamic civilizations are inferior to western ones.

Berlusconi's defeat in 2006 came in a period when Bush was losing several of his strongest supporters overseas as they left office by electoral loss or otherwise, including Britain's Tony Blair, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, and Australia's John Howard.

But in that relatively tight circle of friends, Berlusconi, a billionaire and onetime cruise-ship crooner, has just accomplished a political comeback unlikely to be repeated by anyone else. With the parties of both the far right and far left falling off badly, Berlusconi and his allies took nearly 47 percent of the vote, to the center-left grouping's 38 percent.

Berlusconi's good fortune came courtesy of economic stagnation and anger at the current government's inability to change the status quo in Italy.

For Bush, the political resurrection of his friend in Rome is a welcome restoration of the status quo ante. With the old crooner coming back to office, the White House has something to sing about in Europe as well.