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The Berlusconi I knew He was so much more than an energetic playboy

Edward Luttwak (centre) with Silvio Berlusconi in Rome, 2008

Edward Luttwak (centre) with Silvio Berlusconi in Rome, 2008


June 15, 2023   4 mins

Every time I met Silvio Berlusconi, usually in his own Palazzo Grazioli, he would ask questions about terrorism or munitions policy and wait for me to answer. Afterwards, he would reciprocate with a pair of E. Marinella ties in the designer’s extravagantly elaborate box.

Because I only wear ties when I really must, I kept a few and would bring the rest as gifts when meeting prime ministers in other countries. Over the years, however, it increasingly transpired that these men had also met Berlusconi and received their own Marinella. They would respond with a Berlusconi anecdote, which invariably included a very good joke and some useful advice, delivered in his exuberant manner with the happy smile of a lifelong optimist.

That was the secret of Berlusconi. For, in spite of its beauty, Italy is a country of pessimists, while Berlusconi always believed that something good was waiting for him just round the corner — and, for decades, there was.

Berlusconi never had to climb Disraeli’s greasy pole to become Italy’s prime minister. When the moment came in 1994, Berlusconi simply went on his three television channels to call for mass support for his brand-new Forza Italia party, which he readily obtained from a frightened electorate. All the moderate parties had collapsed, and a takeover by the Communists, who had renamed themselves the Democratic Party of the Left, seemed imminent.

The cause of this chaos was the Mani Pulite investigative campaign started by Antonio di Pietro, a then-unknown prosecutor who used Italy’s unique and abusive system of “preventive detention” — which allows prosecutors to imprison people without any evidence, ostensibly to fight organised crime — to lock up politicians and make them talk. Di Pietro was soon imitated by other prosecutors across the country: by the end of 1993, more than 4,000 elected officials at every level of government had been investigated or remained under investigation, with others released only if they denounced a higher-level official or major business figure.

Because suspects could be re-arrested once the original time limit had expired, a number of prominent politicians and businessmen killed themselves in prison — including, in July 1993, Gabriele Cagliari, the head of the ENI oil company, Italy’s largest enterprise. This was a great shock to an already demoralised political and business establishment. Everyone at the top knew Cagliari personally, as I did myself (I went with him to Leningrad, as it then was, to negotiate with mayor Sobchak and his German-speaking foreign affairs director Vladimir Putin).

It was in this context that Berlusconi founded Forza Italia. A few months later, on 11 May 1994, he won enough seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate to form a government. At first there was promise: it tried to initiate liberalising reforms of Italy’s highly deformed state-directed economy. But before it had made much progress, Berlusconi fell from power. What was left of Italy’s political and business establishment could not accept that the upstart, incurably lower-middle-class Berlusconi was the country’s political leader — and by January 1995, he was intrigued out of office, with president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro engineering the defection of some of Berlusconi’s new allies.

There was no new general election because Scalfaro contrived a regrouping of parties that formed a new government under the technocrat Lamberto Dini. But Berlusconi’s party faithful remained in control of regional and local authorities across Italy, and its parliamentary votes were still needed. This yielded real power, which was often used to favour Berlusconi’s widespread business interests, but also to promote the liberalisation of Italy’s state-heavy economy. It eventually yielded tangible benefits, including the transformation of the decrepit money-losing Poste Italiane into an efficient modern service that is still present in every village.

It was not, however, until June 2001 that Berlusconi had enough votes to be made prime minister again and form Italy’s longest serving government since the Fifties. Over the next five years, the country’s economy was further liberalised, and its defence strategy, particularly after 9/11, strengthened. Even before then, under the influence of Francesco Cossiga — who was a real security expert while variously serving as interior minister, prime minister and president — Italy had taken firm measures in response to its own Red Brigades domestic terrorists. But Berlusconi’s decidedly pro-American and pro-Israel stance induced him to do even more, palpably strengthening the government’s resolve to prevent, and not just “fight”, terrorism like every other country. The result, 22 years later, is that while Italy’s Muslim population has continued to increase and its borders remain porous, not a single person has been wounded, let alone killed, by an Islamist terrorist on Italian soil since 9/11.

This was the Berlusconi that I dealt with in those post-9/11 years. Not Berlusconi the energetic playboy, who at different times kept an entire harem of young girls to be made available to visiting political leaders who were so inclined, as most were; not Berlusconi the businessman, who continued to watch over his many different businesses while managing state affairs; but rather Berlusconi the industrial executive who had learned that sometimes the chief executive must engage with the most minute details to do his job — and there was nothing facile or irresponsible about that Berlusconi.

In many ways, his final government between 2008 and 2011 was a tale of personal decline, culminating in the peculiar circumstances of his downfall. He was neither deposed by a cabal of rival party leaders nor by the treachery of members of his coalition, but by his own minister of the treasury and Italy’s president. To avoid Greece’s fate, Italy had to raise taxes just enough to persuade investors that it would control its public spending. But Berlusconi refused. In fact, he refused to look even at the numbers his finance minister was proffering; he was then in his maximum harem phase, with a dozen young girls housed in a luxury dormitory from which they were ferried to attend his after-dinner entertainments.

After that, his leadership waned, never really recovering even after he gave up his harem to marry a new wife. By the time he died on Monday morning, Berlusconi had led several lives, mostly rather well, and always in great part successful.


Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.

ELuttwak

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J Bryant
J Bryant
11 months ago

Luttwak has certainly met a lot of prominent people. I suppose one of his qualities is the ability to keep secrets, or at least to tell the truth strategically, otherwise he wouldn’t get to meet all those people.
Berlusconi the energetic playboy, who at different times kept an entire harem of young girls to be made available to visiting political leaders who were so inclined, as most were.
I’ll bet they were. There’s a political witch hunt for Trump unfolding, including charges related to his relationship with a stripper. I wonder how many of the pious, supposedly woke, global leaders would face charges if their exploits with Berlusconi’s harem were known.
Who keeps those secrets, I wonder? Were there hidden cameras? Is that what the Russians used to call Kompromat? I bet Bill Clinton would be at the very top of the list, but, of course, there are global forces at play to protect him and others. Not all conspiracy theories are wrong.

Zoder Quacuun
Zoder Quacuun
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

by an Italian who lives in Italy… I remember that period in 1993 and I would like to point out that the strategy of “preventive detention” was absolutely necessary: those 4,000 people – entrepreneurs – were LITERALLY killing the Italian economy because any funding for public works had to be accompanied with a “money bribe” to be donated to Italy’s three main political parties… this “criminal and carcinogenic” system of illicit financing was truly killing every aspect of our Italian economy (e.g. the construction of the Milan Metro, and the one of Rome, had a much higher cost for each mile of track rather than the same costs incurred for the construction of other subways in other European cities … like London, Paris, Madrid). This higher costs has happened because the Italian builders – those same entrepreneurs – were forced to pay those bribes in money and this “extraordinary cost” has meant that there was a lack of funds for the actual construction of a large underground network (infact, nowaday, the subways of Milan and Rome are really so short in terms of length of tracks because at that time the politicians and the entrepreneurs have LITERALLY drained in their pocket all the money budgeted by the community for the execution of those public works.
And I would also like to underline the fact that italy, unlike the United States, is a nation surrounded by dozens of other nations: it is really very easy to escape abroad (take your car and in 30 minutes you are at the border with Switzerland from where is absolutely not easy – for Italian authorities – to get a quick draw… especially if you are a wealthy entrepreneur who already has bank accounts… and some diamnonds in your pocket… deposited there in Switzerland).
The “preventive detention” was absolutely necessary to prevent those criminals from escaping abroad and continuing to pursue their criminal “modus-operandi“.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You do realise that Clinton is no longer in office? And that he was hounded relentlessly over the Lewinsky affair?

Last edited 11 months ago by Frank McCusker
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

“Hounded”? He was defended by women claiming to be “feminists” (one publicly stated she would give him a ****job for his stance on abortion). His hideous consort was all over television claiming first that his grotesque priapism was a “vast Right-wing conspiracy”. Then she went on to claim Lewinsky was an unstable stalker.
What does it matter that Clinton is no longer in office? The powerful politicians who indulged in Berlusconi’s harem are likely the same who enjoyed the sex slaves on Epstein’s island. Why don’t we know who they are? Or am I being too relentlessly houndy?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

“Hounded”? He was defended by women claiming to be “feminists” (one publicly stated she would give him a ****job for his stance on abortion). His hideous consort was all over television claiming first that his grotesque priapism was a “vast Right-wing conspiracy”. Then she went on to claim Lewinsky was an unstable stalker.
What does it matter that Clinton is no longer in office? The powerful politicians who indulged in Berlusconi’s harem are likely the same who enjoyed the sex slaves on Epstein’s island. Why don’t we know who they are? Or am I being too relentlessly houndy?

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Most conspiracies are not theoretical.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

No, most are illusory.

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Some are illusory, perhaps most. But some should be prefaced as spoiler alerts. The Wuhan lab leak, for example.

Last edited 11 months ago by Ray Zacek
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

I agree something went on there, with conspiratorial cover-up and an concerted effort to discredit anyone who publicly mentioned the connection. For me, the problem–or overreach alert–is when people go from there to “Plandemic”, #Moonlandingfake, 911 Inside Job, or Alien Pyramids, etc.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

I agree something went on there, with conspiratorial cover-up and an concerted effort to discredit anyone who publicly mentioned the connection. For me, the problem–or overreach alert–is when people go from there to “Plandemic”, #Moonlandingfake, 911 Inside Job, or Alien Pyramids, etc.

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Some are illusory, perhaps most. But some should be prefaced as spoiler alerts. The Wuhan lab leak, for example.

Last edited 11 months ago by Ray Zacek
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

No, most are illusory.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Clinton visited Epstein’s Island something like 18 times. So he probably visited Burlusconi a few times as well.

Zoder Quacuun
Zoder Quacuun
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

by an Italian who lives in Italy… I remember that period in 1993 and I would like to point out that the strategy of “preventive detention” was absolutely necessary: those 4,000 people – entrepreneurs – were LITERALLY killing the Italian economy because any funding for public works had to be accompanied with a “money bribe” to be donated to Italy’s three main political parties… this “criminal and carcinogenic” system of illicit financing was truly killing every aspect of our Italian economy (e.g. the construction of the Milan Metro, and the one of Rome, had a much higher cost for each mile of track rather than the same costs incurred for the construction of other subways in other European cities … like London, Paris, Madrid). This higher costs has happened because the Italian builders – those same entrepreneurs – were forced to pay those bribes in money and this “extraordinary cost” has meant that there was a lack of funds for the actual construction of a large underground network (infact, nowaday, the subways of Milan and Rome are really so short in terms of length of tracks because at that time the politicians and the entrepreneurs have LITERALLY drained in their pocket all the money budgeted by the community for the execution of those public works.
And I would also like to underline the fact that italy, unlike the United States, is a nation surrounded by dozens of other nations: it is really very easy to escape abroad (take your car and in 30 minutes you are at the border with Switzerland from where is absolutely not easy – for Italian authorities – to get a quick draw… especially if you are a wealthy entrepreneur who already has bank accounts… and some diamnonds in your pocket… deposited there in Switzerland).
The “preventive detention” was absolutely necessary to prevent those criminals from escaping abroad and continuing to pursue their criminal “modus-operandi“.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You do realise that Clinton is no longer in office? And that he was hounded relentlessly over the Lewinsky affair?

Last edited 11 months ago by Frank McCusker
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Most conspiracies are not theoretical.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Clinton visited Epstein’s Island something like 18 times. So he probably visited Burlusconi a few times as well.

J Bryant
J Bryant
11 months ago

Luttwak has certainly met a lot of prominent people. I suppose one of his qualities is the ability to keep secrets, or at least to tell the truth strategically, otherwise he wouldn’t get to meet all those people.
Berlusconi the energetic playboy, who at different times kept an entire harem of young girls to be made available to visiting political leaders who were so inclined, as most were.
I’ll bet they were. There’s a political witch hunt for Trump unfolding, including charges related to his relationship with a stripper. I wonder how many of the pious, supposedly woke, global leaders would face charges if their exploits with Berlusconi’s harem were known.
Who keeps those secrets, I wonder? Were there hidden cameras? Is that what the Russians used to call Kompromat? I bet Bill Clinton would be at the very top of the list, but, of course, there are global forces at play to protect him and others. Not all conspiracy theories are wrong.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

“he was then in his maximum harem phase, with a dozen young girls housed in a luxury dormitory from which they were ferried to attend his after-dinner entertainments.”
Good guy overall though, right? (Yeah, probably not). It’s one thing to say he wasn’t only a “bunga bunga” hound or make the valid point that most men have a horndog side to us that many would indulge if given the resources and opportunity. But that doesn’t make it ok, not at this scale of drooling sleaziness, and it wasn’t ok with Slick Willy or Donny Dames (Trump) either.
Do we need to be ever-so-scandalized or indulge in some stereotypically-American puritanical hypocrisy? Nah, of course not. We can still ask for leaders that aren’t this trashy, this given over to their appetites after reaching middle-age and beyond. A matter of degree, not absolute moral purity or corruption.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

“he was then in his maximum harem phase, with a dozen young girls housed in a luxury dormitory from which they were ferried to attend his after-dinner entertainments.”
Good guy overall though, right? (Yeah, probably not). It’s one thing to say he wasn’t only a “bunga bunga” hound or make the valid point that most men have a horndog side to us that many would indulge if given the resources and opportunity. But that doesn’t make it ok, not at this scale of drooling sleaziness, and it wasn’t ok with Slick Willy or Donny Dames (Trump) either.
Do we need to be ever-so-scandalized or indulge in some stereotypically-American puritanical hypocrisy? Nah, of course not. We can still ask for leaders that aren’t this trashy, this given over to their appetites after reaching middle-age and beyond. A matter of degree, not absolute moral purity or corruption.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
11 months ago

There should be a law against businessmen and TV stars getting into high office. They’re either dumb, or autocratic, or both. Berlusconi was a dickhead

Danielle Treille
Danielle Treille
11 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

If the RAI TV channels are anything to go by, he was also a mysoginistic buffoon.

Danielle Treille
Danielle Treille
11 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

If the RAI TV channels are anything to go by, he was also a mysoginistic buffoon.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
11 months ago

There should be a law against businessmen and TV stars getting into high office. They’re either dumb, or autocratic, or both. Berlusconi was a dickhead

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
11 months ago

Luttwak does not address the question of whether Italy deserves its reputation for corruption or not. He does not ask whether the business men imprisoned were guilty of the charges against them. He does not ask whether they named other people whom they knew were guilty of stealing public money. The Christian Democrats disbanded itself because the electorate saw that the party was rotten to its Andreotti core with corruption and links to organised crime.
The deaths of Epstein and many other people in the US show that people committing ‘suicide’ often have helping hands. The same probably applies in Italy.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
11 months ago

Luttwak does not address the question of whether Italy deserves its reputation for corruption or not. He does not ask whether the business men imprisoned were guilty of the charges against them. He does not ask whether they named other people whom they knew were guilty of stealing public money. The Christian Democrats disbanded itself because the electorate saw that the party was rotten to its Andreotti core with corruption and links to organised crime.
The deaths of Epstein and many other people in the US show that people committing ‘suicide’ often have helping hands. The same probably applies in Italy.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
11 months ago

It would be interesting to know more about those negotiations with Sobchak and Putin, who were then building their relationship with the Petersbourg mafia which ran the port.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
11 months ago

It would be interesting to know more about those negotiations with Sobchak and Putin, who were then building their relationship with the Petersbourg mafia which ran the port.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
11 months ago

Word.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
11 months ago

Word.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
11 months ago

Genuinely glad you liked Silvio B.