LONDON Do you ever turn a blind eye to things you don't want to see? The phrase originated with Admiral Horatio nelson, the greatest British naval hero. At the battle of Copenhagen in 1801 he put his telescope to his blind eye in order to ignore a signal from his commander giving him permission to abandon the action. "I have the right to be blind sometimes," he told his flag captain, and proceeded to win a famous victory.
More commonly, however, turning a blind eye has less desirable consequences. Just now, Europe seems determined to turn a blind eye to a host of problems, internal and external, which demand urgent action.
There is nothing new about this, of course. The exit of Fidel Castro from the stage this week was a reminder of how Europe willfully turned a blind eye to the terrible consequences of this evil dictator for half a century.
Most of the press in Britain concentrated on Castro's "charisma" the cigars and battle fatigues rather than his appalling record of suppressing opposition at home, supporting terrorism abroad, and destroying the prosperity and freedom of his people. Turning a blind eye to the reality of Castro's regime and to the testimony of Cuban Americans has enabled Europeans to prop it up for decades with tourism and trade, while chiding America for imposing sanctions.
It was the same story with China, when Steven Spielberg pulled out of his role in the Beijing Olympics. The European elites, who have systematically turned a blind eye to the terrible crimes, past and present, of the Chinese Communists, were embarrassed to find a Hollywood film director pointing out that the Chinese emperor's new clothes cannot disguise naked tyranny.
Europe even turns a blind eye to problems on its own doorstep. Its leaders have known about the impending crisis over Kosovo's declaration of independence for years, yet only now have the threats emanating from Moscow concentrated minds sufficiently to prompt the reinforcement of the peacekeeping forces stationed there.
As usual, it's the British with an under-strength army that is already overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq who have scraped together a scratch force to fly to the Balkans. The rest of the European Union watches complacently as Serbian nationalists rattle their sabres. Perhaps they are waiting for the American cavalry to arrive, as it did 10 years ago, just in time to prevent Milosevic from committing genocide.
The Kremlin under Vladimir Putin has, of course, been threatening Europe much more directly, by targeting missiles at the newer members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In particular, the Baltic states are feeling desperately vulnerable, after last year's "cyberwar" against Estonia, and Georgia is braced for renewed Russian support of separatist rebels in retaliation for Kosovo. Yet, still, Europe turns a blind eye.
Time and time again, Europe turns a blind eye to American actions that save it from the consequences of its own supine attitude. How many terrorist attacks on European targets have been forestalled by American intelligence, much of it obtained by methods which Europeans sanctimoniously denounce? How much airtime and column inches in the European press in the past week were devoted to President Bush's record in Africa, compared to the space given to denouncing the decision to hold the September 11 trial before a military rather than a civilian court?
One place to which Europe never turns its blind eye is Israel. For example, there was much coverage in Britain this week of the disclosure of police papers about an incident in 2005, when a warrant was issued for the arrest of Major General Doron Almog of the Israeli Defense Forces when his El Al plane landed at Heathrow Airport in London. The general was tipped off by Israeli diplomats and never left the plane. The police decided not to try to arrest General Almog, apparently because they feared an armed confrontation with El Al security guards, and they have been widely criticized for letting a "war criminal" go free.
Yet the real scandal here is that a British judge should not have issued the warrant, at the behest of a solicitor, Daniel Machover, acting for Palestinians whose houses in Gaza had been demolished by the IDF. General Almog is not a "war criminal" but a soldier defending his country against a ruthless foe: "Many times I have saved Palestinian lives by risking my life and the lives of my soldiers," he said.
Europe's blind eye might be turned less often to the dangers posed by its enemies and the virtues of its allies if the continent enjoyed better leadership. In recent weeks the name of Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britian turned Middle East envoy, has been canvassed for the new post of President of Europe.
Though Mr. Blair candidacy was proposed by President Sarkozy, and enjoys wide support, including the new E.U. member states in central and Eastern Europe, his candidacy is opposed by several governments and many officials of Brussels mainly because he is too pro-American.
The Guardian yesterday quoted a senior E.U. bureaucrat: "All the political risk he took was transatlantic, always towards Washington, never for Europe. His chances are dim. [German Chancellor] Merkel is against." Even Mr. Blair's successor, Gordon Brown (who, like Admiral Nelson, actually is blind in one eye), is lukewarm in his support of his old rival.
If indeed Europe were to veto Mr. Blair as its first president, it would be another example of wilful blindness. Whoever wins the American election, the primary task of Europe's new president will be to prevent America from turning a blind eye to its fickle European friends especially if by then there is a full-scale economic crisis. Tony Blair enjoys the confidence of most Americans. Who else in Europe does?