I've been thinking a lot over the last few days, as the crisis has been ongoing, about what our appraisal should be of the Italian right's behaviour in the dispute in Italy over Prodi's foreign policy. Prodi lost a vote on maintaining Italy's presence in Afghanistan as some of his own coalition abstained in the senate and the right voted against en masse. He was then forced to resign although it appears he will attempt to form a new majority.
Now, I find it highly unlikely that the Italian right actually wants to leave Afghanistan. Afghanistan is dissimilar to Iraq in some crucial ways and has broader, bi-partisan support across the Western alliance. Italian involvement there was begun by the Italian right under Berlusconi's leadership. While Italian foreign policy as a whole under Prodi might have flaws sticking with Afghanistan, particularly now, is an important enough issue to be treated independently. As such, this article by John Hooper is somewhat misleading as the majority of those who voted against the Afghan involvement are not motivated by a dislike of that involvement and other relations with the US; although that connection may be upsetting a portion of the population and certainly changed the votes of radical members of the left-wing coalition.
Was the right wing vote unprincipled?
In terms of the issue at hand it certainly looks that way. They are taking political advantage from voting against an initiative that they believe to be right. This is a very definite sacrifice of principle to narrow partisan advantage.
However, it is unlikely this will result in the troops actually being withdrawn. Were Prodi to actually fall the right could get itself elected and have both involvement in Afghanistan and an improvement across other policy which is a positive net result for principle. With Prodi surviving the likely outcome is a weakening of his position, and ability to do further harm, combined with a passing of the original measure to keep troops in Afghanistan.
Why is it that I'm still disconcerted? Why do I have a vague feeling that principle on each individual issue should be preferred to sacrifices for a general maximisation of principle across different issues?
Perhaps it is that the right is, to a certain extent, punishing Prodi for his willingness to take on the radical left in the name of sensible policy. Prodi is suffering for being taking the right-wing side of a debate and it seems immoral to me that the right should take advantage of that. Even if he is, in general, a Prime Minister few right-wingers would want much to do with his principled stand on this issue should be celebrated. After all, the right should have an interest in facing the best possible enemies. Blair's shifting the Labour party right may have hurt Conservative electoral prospects but undoubtedly shifted the political centre towards our beliefs by validating them. By punishing Prodi for being sensible on Afghanistan, the Italian right give prominence and credibility to the worst strains of the Left.