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Opinion

What Italy's history suggests for US policy in Middle East

March 17 isn't just St. Patrick's Day. This year, it's the 150th anniversary of Italy as a modern state. Those who don’t believe that Egypt or others in the region can become prosperous democracies should consider the Italy's history – and what it suggests for US policy in the Middle East now.

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For the next four decades, the US-friendly Christian Democrats held power, even as they changed prime ministers almost every year. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, a top US priority was to keep the left out of the Italian government, and it was successful.

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Italian democracy grew and survived

Over the same decades, the Italian economy boomed with the support of the Marshall Plan, the creation of the European Common Market (now the EU), and the defense umbrella of NATO. For a time it became the fourth largest economy in the world, briefly surpassing the UK. The Fellinis of film, the Ferraris of autos, and the Versaces of fashion became worldwide brands.

That didn’t mean that Italy became Sweden. The Sicilian mafia and its criminal cousins in southern Italy remained vibrant and powerful in politics. Government bureaucracy and corruption thrived; tax evasion and undisciplined spending drove state debt to one of the highest in Europe. Today, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s financial and personal antics embarrass Italy around the world.

But, through it all, Italian democracy has survived with real elections, an independent judiciary, and free speech. Today it is a pillar of NATO and the EU.

Arab democracy needs US patience, support

What does this mean for US policy toward Egypt and the Middle East?

Embrace the opportunity for Arabs to build stable democracies, and help them do so. Understand that there will be steps forward and steps back. And provide material support – debt relief, trade opportunities, security guarantees – tied to the consolidation of democratic institutions.

That doesn’t mean, as some who fear the Muslim Brotherhood have suggested, intervening in Egyptian elections as the US did in 1948 in Italy. Today, just months after the US dropped its support for Egypt’s dictator, the US does not have the credibility it had in Italy in 1948 after US troops had liberated Italy from the Nazis.

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Nonetheless, the US should be proactive in ways that are appropriate to the specific circumstances in the region. American leadership, in cooperation with our allies, was critical to Italy becoming a modern, democratic state. We can help Egypt and its neighbors do the same.

Jim Rosapepe, former US Ambassador to Romania, was born in Rome and is co-author of "Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy."

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