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Berlusconi in Washington to meet with Obama

world Updated: Jun 15, 2009 22:20 IST

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Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's meeting on Monday with President Barack Obama offers the Italian leader a chance to rehabilitate his international reputation after a scandal over his link to an 18-year-old model and ahead of a major summit he is hosting next month.

Obama is looking for common ground on boosting the troubled economy, and the two leaders are likely to discuss the differing approaches of the US and most of Europe, a topic that will feature prominently at the July summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations in L'Aquila, the Apennine mountain town that was devastated by an earthquake this spring.

"I think (Obama) will want to encourage as much conversation and public statements as possible about strong U.S.-European cooperation to ensure quick recovery of the economy," said Heather Conley, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe Program.

The two also are meeting hours after the European Union agreed to let individual EU nations take detainees from the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. A Berlusconi aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that the premier would be open to take in at least three detainees.

The leaders offer a striking contrast: Berlusconi, a media mogul and one of Italy's richest men, has been plagued by criminal trials, conflict-of-interest accusations, tawdry scandals and headline-making gaffes that have drawn scorn from other countries but have done little to lower his high popularity rating at home.

Among other unguarded comments, Berlusconi made headlines shortly after the US presidential election when he said Obama is "young, he's handsome and he even has a good tan," but has traditionally entertained very friendly relations with the US.

Obama, on the other hand, is a young, dynamic president with a squeaky-clean family image and a reputation for phenomenal self-control, hence his nickname, "No Drama Obama." He is much admired abroad, especially in Western Europe.

The meeting is important for Berlusconi, who is seeking to establish a personal relationship with the young, popular president akin to the one he had with Obama's predecessor, President George W Bush.

The premier arrived late on Sunday and went straight to his hotel without making any statements to the press. He spent Monday morning working in his room and preparing for the meeting.

Berlusconi also must show Italians and the world that he is a statesman capable of pushing his country's interests as well as those of the G-8 nations. His office points out that Berlusconi is the second EU leader after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to be received at the White House by Obama.

"Berlusconi has to show the world after all his antics of the past month-and-a-half that he is a world-class statesman and not an aging clown," said James Walston, a political science professor at the American University of Rome. "And he must be careful not to just drop bricks."

His trip to Washington follows suggestions from Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, last month that the 72-year-old premier had an inappropriate relationship with 18-year-old Noemi Letizia. Lario cited Berlusconi's presence at Letizia's birthday party in announcing she was divorcing him.

Berlusconi has denied there was anything improper about his relationship with the teenager, who he has said is the daughter of an old friend from political circles. He has said he was victim of a slander campaign by the opposition ahead of last weekend's European Parliament elections.

While the Italian public was riveted, the scandal had no impact on Berlusconi's political career at home, as his People's Freedom Party won the European elections hands down over the center-left Democratic Party.

But it played big abroad and won him condemnation in newspaper opinion pieces in many countries.
Berlusconi's meeting with Obama and the upcoming G-8 meeting in L'Aquila mark opportunities for the aging premier to be relevant.

On the economy, the United States and Britain favor staying committed to free-spending measures to jolt the economy, but several continental European countries and Canada want unwinding those measures to be the main topic of conversation. Italy has not taken a position, choosing to remain neutral.

The two also are expected to discuss the situation in the Middle East, Afghanistan, where Italy has about 2,800 troops and Iran, the premier's office said.

The Berlusconi aide said the premier is considering temporarily sending more than 500 police officers, troops, police instructors and pilots to Afghanistan to bolster its contingent there in the run-up to the August 20 election.