On the web: hung parliaments, Iran, the Euro’s plight, and the Queen as horizon scanner…

– With the UK election campaign under way in all but name, the FT’s Martin Wolf explains why he doesn’t fear a hung parliament – arguing that it might be just what’s needed to achieve fiscal restraint. “So poorly has single-party despotism governed the UK”, he suggests, “that I would welcome a coalition or, at worst, a minority government.” The Institute for Government, meanwhile answers all your hung parliament-related questions here, placing things in international and historical perspective.

– The Cable highlights the Obama administration’s key people on Iran. Richard Haass, meanwhile, suggests that the West’s strategy must do more to help the Iranian people – with the US and EU acting to “energise and lend rhetorical support to the opposition, helping it to communicate with the outside world”.

– Elsewhere, Der Spiegel profiles the five main risks to the Euro – namely Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Italy – assessing their economic woes. Charlemagne, meanwhile, interviews Cathy Ashton. And The Economist also has news that Dominique Strauss-Khan, current IMF head, is considering running against Nicolas Sarkozy in France’s 2012 presidential elections.

– Finally, this week saw a group of British Academy experts writing to the Queen about the failure to foresee the credit crunch – a follow-up to a question from the monarch at the LSE last summer. Their suggestion: the need for a better-coordinated government horizon scanning capacity – something that could take the form of a monthly economics briefing to the Queen, which would serve – as Professor Peter Hennessy has commented – to “sharpen minds” of officials. Read the full letter here (pdf).

Interoperability – NATO style

Another object lesson from NATO on how not to work together:

When ten French soldiers were killed last year in an ambush by Afghan insurgents in what had seemed a relatively peaceful area, the French public were horrified.

Their revulsion increased with the news that many of the dead soldiers had been mutilated — and with the publication of photographs showing the militants triumphantly sporting their victims’ flak jackets and weapons. The French had been in charge of the Sarobi area, east of Kabul, for only a month, taking over from the Italians; it was one of the biggest single losses of life by Nato forces in Afghanistan.

What the grieving nation did not know was that in the months before the French soldiers arrived in mid-2008, the Italian secret service had been paying tens of thousands of dollars to Taleban commanders and local warlords to keep the area quiet, The Times has learnt. The clandestine payments, whose existence was hidden from the incoming French forces, were disclosed by Western military officials.

Even more bizarrely, it seems that the Italians’ behaviour only came to light because US intelligence was listening in on its calls. Farcical.

Italy to world – we’re ridiculous

Another European country is going to great lengths to render itself absurd in the eyes of the rest of the world. Yes, it’s Italy’s turn (emulating Germany’s example from over the weekend):

An emergency taskforce is to be established within a month to monitor airwaves and news-stands the world over for coverage of Italy and bombard foreign newsrooms with good news about the country.

The plan was announced by the tourism minister, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, who said a crack team of young journalists and communications experts would be assembled to stamp out bad news.

“Their first job will be to monitor all the foreign press, including dailies, periodicals and TV in every latitude, from Japan to Peru,” she told Corriere della Sera today.

The second task will be to “bombard those newsrooms with truthful and positive news”, and reveal to the world “a generous, truthful and audacious Italy – the Italy of entrepreneurs, art, cultural events and our products”.

This, needless to say, is the brainwave of Signor Berlusconi who – crazier by the day – is intent on crushing anti-Italian forces that are intent on destroying him. If this was a film (and perhaps it is), we’d be nearing point in the plot when the mad dictator is put out of his misery by faceless henchmen…

Global Dashboard – an apology

Earlier this week, Global Dashboard contributor Richard Gowan spoke to the Guardian newspaper about the G8 summit, during which he made certain remarks about Italy’s preparations that might be construed as offensive.  Specifically, he said that:

“The Italian preparations for the summit have been chaotic from start to finish. The Italians were saying as long ago as January this year that they did not have a vision of the summit, and if the Obama administration had any ideas they would take instruction from the Americans.”

Asked about the fact that between 39 and 44 heads of government would be attending the summit in L’Aquila, Mr Gowan added that,

“This is a gigantic fudge. The Italians have no ideas and have decided that best thing to do is to spread the agenda extremely thinly to obscure the fact that they didn’t really have an agenda.”

Mr Gowan’s coments were made in the context of an article entitled “Calls grow within G8 to expel Italy as summit plans descend into chaos”, which suggested that Italy might be ejected from the G8 in favour of Spain. While the article also quoted other sources, Mr Gowan was the only one who spoke on the record, and hence bears a particular responsibility for what followed.

The next day, Silvio Berlusconi strongly rebutted Mr Gowan’s claims at a press conference, calling the Guardian’s report “a colossal blunder by a small newspaper”. Foreign minister Franco Frattini added that: “I hope that the Guardian is expelled from the great newspapers of the world. What the Guardian says is a joke – nonsense.” Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa has also called for a boycott of the paper.

Global Dashboard takes very seriously the clear and justified sense of hurt felt by the Italian government, and wishes to underline that Mr Gowan’s intemperate remarks do not represent the views of this blog, which regards Mr Berlusconi as an international relations powerhouse.

We would like to place it on record that we believe him to be a beacon of good governance and commitment to international development, and that we disdain the various groundless slurs made on his personal behaviour in recent months. We also strongly support his bid for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Geldof slams ‘poor, sad Italy’

Development charity One.org has released its annual report examining how far G8 countries are meeting their Gleneagles commitment to double aid to Africa. The US, Japan and Canada are headed towards meeting or exceeding their pledges, while Germany and the UK are said to be ‘striving’ towards their ‘big commitments’. Unfortunately, France and Italy are letting the rest of us down. Apparently, they account for 80% of the shortfall in aid increases. Italy’s efforts in particular are described as an ‘utter failure’. Bob Geldof is quoted as having commented in a characteristically forthright manner:

Poor, sad Italy. That their economy is in such a disastrous meltdown condition that they must steal from the poor, rob the ill and snatch education from the minds of the young not only beggars the imagination, but must also surely beggar the soul of that most beautiful country. Shame on you. Your government disgraces you.

‘Nuff said.