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Dear Mr Bush!

Pierleone Ottolenghi
27 February 2006

The United States president is preparing to welcome Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to address a joint meeting of Congress. A bad move, says George W Bush's fellow Harvard Business School alumnus, Pierleone Ottolenghi.

The bizarre career of Silvio Berlusconi – from crooner to media tycoon and now prime minister of Italy in personal control of most of the country's television media – never ceases to amaze. He is currently using every lever of his media-political empire to help ensure that his bedazzled citizens re-elect him and his Forza Italia party in the country's general elections on 9-10 April 2006.

As such a moment of historic choice nears, it is natural to hope that foreign governments will attend to the condition of democracy in our country with respect and curiosity – but also refrain from any appearance of partisanship in the great contest.

It is especially shocking, then, to see that the President of the United States, George W Bush, has – by inviting Berlusconi to address a joint meeting of Congress on 1 March – made an astonishing intervention into Italian politics which shows a brazen disregard of this principle of democratic behaviour.

The event, which leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera calls "a mega-electoral gift", is being played to the full by Berlusconi's many channels of influence to cover him in uncritical glory as the man who embodies Italy's self-esteem on the world stage.

Pierleone Ottolenghi is a Milan-based investment banker. He attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University (1949-1952) and subsequently the Harvard Business School (MBA, 1954).

Also by Pierleone Ottolenghi in openDemocracy:

"In memory of Franco Modigliani"
(October 2003)

I am an Italian citizen who, having benefited from five years' study in leading American universities such as the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Harvard Business School (MBA '54) and service on the European advisory boards of two leading US companies, owes the United States much. I learned from America about due process and a culture of respect for legality, qualities sorely lacking in present-day Italy.

When I was a student in the United States in 1951 I watched the then prime minister of my country, Alcide de Gasperi, address Congress. It was the time of the Marshall plan. Though not a sympathiser of his Christian Democratic Party I was moved by his modesty, farsightedness and statesmanship. It made me proud to be an Italian and appreciative of what America could stand for.

President Bush, or his aides, might not care (though they should) about the dismal economic realities behind Berlusconi's circus of political stunts and provocative rhetoric. In his five years as prime minister, this "pro-business" leader has delivered an abominable economic performance – indeed, the worst among the larger European countries. In May 2005, the respected journal the Economist – against which Berlusconi has sought legal and financial punishment for its detailed criticisms of his ethics – characterised Italy as "the real sick man of Europe" during his period in office.

But what should concern the eminences in Washington is the huge ethical-democratic deficit surrounding Italy's leader. They could find out about it by reading the vast international literature questioning many aspects of Berlusconi's conduct. The prime minister himself has been twice legally condemned, and "acquitted" on other counts, only because the statute of limitations meant charges had to be dropped (or "de-penalised").

His alleged relationship with the Mafia (in the May 2001 election, Berlusconi's party won all of Sicily's sixty-one seats) has also been closely scrutinised. One of his principal aides and friends, Marcello Dell'Utri, founder of Forza Italia and a member of Italy's parliament, has been condemned to eleven years in jail for connivance with the Mafia (he is appealing). Another of his closest aides, Cesare Previti (a minister in Berlusconi's first government in 1994, also a current MP) has been condemned for bribing judges (he is also appealing).

Also in openDemocracy on Italian politics in the Berlusconi years:

Giovanni Bachelet, "A manifesto from Italy" (May 2002)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?"
(June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (August 2005)

Geoff Andrews, "Italy's election: no laughing matter"
(February 2006)

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Berlusconi's main defence lawyer is chairman of the judiciary commission of the lower house of parliament; another of his defence lawyers is a member of this commission. They have been in the vanguard of efforts to extricate Berlusconi from his legal difficulties.

The "conflict of interest" law whereby Berlusconi had to resign as chairman of Milan football club whilst continuing to possess one of Europe's largest media conglomerates has been exposed as a joke. The easing of limits on media ownership in 2003 (the " Gasparri law", named after the then communications minister) – passed over the strong objections of President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi – has greatly benefited the Berlusconi-controlled TV company Mediaset (it has recently announced record after-tax profits of €600 million).

The electoral alliance Berlusconi secured to help him win re-election encompasses ultra-fascist splinter groups some of whose members seem to doubt the existence of gas chambers in the second world war. Could the thousands of American boys who gave their lives in the liberation of Italy have died in vain?

These examples could be multiplied. As a friend of America, I want to ask my fellow Harvard Business School alumnus President Bush: "do you believe you are honouring the US Congress by honouring a man with Berlusconi's credentials? Do you think it is appropriate to interfere in the Italian electoral process in this way by inviting him to address Congress so soon before our national elections?"

Many Italians will, I hope, see this event as so blatantly inappropriate that it is deserving of a democratic reprimand. They will have their own chance to deliver a verdict on Silvio Berlusconi in five weeks' time. In the meantime, now that the Bush administration has made clear its preference, it would seem appropriate for members of the United States Congress to express their protest.

Normally, foreign heads of government, or state, invited to address a joint mmeeting of Congress are statesmen whose integrity is beyond any reasonable doubt. The American people, who elect their Congress, deserve, for their great institution, a better guest.

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