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Stabilization of Libya amid new migrant emergency among priorities of new U.S. ambassador to Italy

by Andrea Carli

Lewis Eisenberg, the moderate Republican chosen by U.S. President Donald Trump last week for the role of U.S. ambassador to Rome, is highly likely to find the question of Libya as the first dossier he must tackle.
Why this North African country? Because that is where the migrants reaching Italian ports are leaving from. According to some recent estimates, 200,000 people are expected to cross the Sicilian Channel to reach Italy in 2017. On Wednesday, about 4,100 migrants were rescued in 20 operations. Migration via sea towards Italy started after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 (an operation wanted by the French, British and Americans) and has increased in the past year to the point of becoming an emergency.

From the U.S. perspective, Italy is a strategic pawn in the stabilization of Libya. An unstable Libya is fertile ground for the proliferation of terrorism and a highway for the passage of Jihadist fighters directly to Europe. Beyond the dialogue that Trump had in recent days with French President Emmanuel Macron, the U.S. knows that Italy is the real partner.

A few hours after the choice of Eisenberg, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti met U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Pinotti underlined that during the meeting, “there was no request for Italy to assume leadership of a military mission in Libya, nor did the Americans ask us to do more in the country.”

So, no Italian “boots on the ground” then. Or at least not for now. The situation could change however. According to Arturo Varvelli, a researcher at Ispi (Institute for International Political Studies), “Italy would be willing to do more, but in exchange it is asking for greater support on the part of the U.S. above all in a moment like the present in which it finds itself managing the migrant emergency alone. The Obama administration recognized its front line role in the stabilization of Libya. With Trump - a little less.”

As the only country (at the moment) to still have an embassy open in Tripoli, Italy supports the government of national unity presided over by Fayez al-Sarraj, but it also has dialogue with Khalifa Haftar, the general in command of the Libyan National Army, backed by Egypt and Russia.

In this fluid situation, the new U.S. ambassador has to promote Washington’s line in Rome, based on constant dialogue with the Italian government and Foreign Ministry. The connection between the U.S. and Italy will become increasingly close. They are two neighbors: under the NATO umbrella, Italy hosts 16,000 U.S. military spread between Vicenza and Livorno (army) Aviano (airforce) and Sigonella, Gaeta and Naples, the latter being the port base of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

It is not just a question of presence of U.S. armed forces on Italian territory. Since World War Two, Italy’s agenda in international organizations such as the U.N., NATO, the G7, G8 and G20, the OECD and the European Union, has been agreed at the U.S. embassy in Rome. In 2017, Italy is presiding over the G7 and sits on the UN Security Council, two places where the Trump administration wants to display a decisive change of course compared to his predecessor Barack Obama.

It is easy to guess that many dossiers will pass through Eisenberg's hands. But who is the new ambassador? Jewish, ex-Goldman Sachs and active in the Republican party, in which he places himself in the moderate wing, he contributed to Trump's election as president with a fundraising campaign. A personal friend of the U.S. president, after September 11 he was nominated director of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which managed the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. He then founded the Republican Leadership Council: a political group which defines itself as fiscally conservative and socially inclusive, confirming his moderate positioning within the party.

Eisenberg is taking over from the former ambassador to Rome John Phillips, a Philadelphia businessman picked by Barack Obama: he will be remembered above all for his direct intervention in the debate before Italy's referendum on constitutional reform in December 2016, when he said he supported a “yes” vote, backing former Italian premier Matteo Renzi, who resigned after the plans were rejected by a “no” victory.