Of all the European countries routinely called upon to provide humanitarian relief or military manpower, Italy has always stood out for its eagerness to enlist. It elbowed its way into famine-stricken Somalia and lobbied incessantly to join NATO's peace-keeping force in Bosnia.
Now that it is poised to take the lead on a multinational humanitarian mission in neighboring Albania, Italy has both its present and its past to confront as it takes on its first, serious leadership challenge since World War II.
As the media in Europe has been quick to point out, Italy's conduct in past multinational operations has been hardly inspiring. What's more, the political climate in Rome may not be able to absorb any casualty-related shocks. But so far, European and United States officials have noted, Italy's handling of the crisis in the impoverished, insurgent country across the Adriatic has been remarkably smooth.
The US State Department made a point of praising Rome's diplomacy even after an Italian Navy patrol enforcing a blockade apparently struck and sank a boat full of Albanian refugees, killing 89 people. More important, six countries, including France, Austria, and Canada, have already agreed to place their troops under Italian command for the first time ever.
The multinational force, which will be assembled under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is already upward of 6,000 men. The troops - 2,500 are Italian - will be deployed in the coming weeks with instructions to secure Albania's ports to ensure the distribution of aid and pave the way for new elections.
Those in Rome who have been doing the planning know it won't be easy. This is partly because the political situation in Albania is far from clear. Its embattled president still controls parliament, the Interior Ministry, and the media. Its prime minister, Bashkim Fino, is working to carry out his mandate, which is to create necessary conditions for new elections.
"From a military point of view, the degree of unpredictability of this mission is extremely high," says Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a political commentator here. "Everyone there is armed."
In a chaotic situation, Italian officials say, clarity of purpose is of utmost importance. "We will go in with two clear objectives," says Undersecretary of State Piero Fassino, "We will bring in and distribute humanitarian aid first, then assist the Albanian government in regaining control over some key points."
The operation's mandate, adds the seasoned diplomat credited with designing the mission in Albania, "will be defined progressively in agreement with the Albanian government."
Because it is exposed to a heavy flow of refugees - 13,000 have already been taken in since Mr. Berisha imposed a state of emergency over a month ago - Italy simply cannot afford to shrug the crisis off. In fact, many here believe Albania has delivered the opportunity to prove the European skeptics wrong and, as political analyst Angelo Panenbiaco wrote in the daily Il Corriere della Sera, "deal a blow to the many negative prejudices" harbored "not entirely without reason" by many European countries."
According to Western observers, some of the misgivings quietly voiced in diplomatic circles when Italy first started assembling a multinational force hark back to the Italian participation in the US-led force deployed in Somalia. Italy's testy presence in one of its former colonies came under close scrutiny after the Egyptian and Nigerian contingents, also participating in the mission, accused Italian soldiers of having bribed village elders in Mogadishu to facilitate the takeover of a checkpoint in the divided capital.
No evidence was ever collected to support the accusations, but at the time many felt Italy's openly insubordinate stance at different junctures of the Somalia mission had damaged its chances of taking the lead in future operations.
Now Italy has a chance to redeem itself. "This operation opens the way for Italian leadership," an optimistic Lamberto Dini, Italy's foreign minister, told the Cabinet on Friday.