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  • AP

    World War II hero Raoul Wallenberg in an this undated file photo.

  • Arthur Max / AP file, 2008

    Nina Lagergren, the half-sister of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust, reads a copy of the prison registration card for her brother that the Russians gave her in 1989, at her house in Stockholm, Sweden, in March, 2008.

Markos Kounalakis: Iraq, Syria need national saviors more than U.S. intervention

Published: Sunday, Jul. 6, 2014 - 12:00 am

B Nina Lagergren is a spry 93-year-old who is keeping a flame alive. The flame is the memory of her half-brother Raoul Wallenberg, who saved more than 10,000 Hungarian Jews from certain death and whom the Soviets “disappeared” at the end of World War II.

Wallenberg acted heroically in Nazi-run 1944 Budapest, distributing self-designed Swedish diplomatic protective passports to Jews targeted for deportation and extermination at Auschwitz.

I listened to Lagergren speak at a Wallenberg memorial dedication here, and she told of her brother’s selflessness, saying “a single person can make a difference.”

If one man could make a humanitarian dent during the incomprehensible horror of the Holocaust and confront the genocidal Nazi killing machine, where are those individuals in today’s civil and sectarian wars?

Perhaps when the dust settles in the Middle East, there will be stories of courageous souls who fought fratricidal insanity. From a distance, and in the heat of the free-for-all Iraqi and Syrian battles, there seems to be no hope. Further, it seems that without U.S. involvement, there is nothing but heartless death and destruction.

This is not a call for full-on U.S. military engagement. That has been tried. It is merely recalling and recognizing America’s traditional – recently tarnished, sometimes failed – global role. It has provided military might and a moderating presence, and has extended a model legal, moral and ethical standard of justice. It has historically expressed a unique combination of power and principle that comes from no other quarter.

American strength and leadership were clear in World War II. Along with the commitment of troops and matériel to Europe, the United States fought evil on multiple fronts. In fact, Wallenberg’s work was structured and underwritten by the United States jointly with the Swedes. America’s active involvement in Wallenberg’s mission, while recognized, has not been widely publicized.

During the Wallenberg dedication in Budapest, the host foreign minister, Tibor Navracsics, pointed out that in 1944 it was “Hungarian against Hungarian,” and that the government exhorted its native countrymen to commit atrocities against each other, which they did.

Today in the Near East, we are witnessing another tragedy of brother vs. brother – of differing proportions – where separate Islamic branches are propelled toward brutal sectarian violence. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria movement fans the flames of hatred and raises the flag of resentment against anyone who is opposed to its new caliphate. ISIS aims to erase national boundaries and non-Sunnis. Shiite leaders have responded with their own call to arms. The intensification of a genocidal cycle is underway.

ISIS used social media to gleefully purport a mass killing of 1,700 Iraqi Shiites, distributing photos of men shot in shallow ditches, faces in the dirt, hands tied behind their backs. That’s 1,700 cut down in cold blood. No trial, no defense, no one coming to their rescue.

But what really stands out right now is that, as in the past, there are too few empowered individuals or groups standing up to intervene; too few standing righteously to save innocents. Is there a Wahhabi Wallenberg somewhere, hidden in the shadows, actively working to counter the current depravity?

Despite the lawlessness and chaos of the current situation, not all Iraqi deaths are faceless or forgotten. Families of the 17 Iraqis killed in 2007 by security teams working for American contractor Blackwater are currently having their day in a U.S. courtroom. Murder testimony is being heard by an American jury. An unprecedented number of Iraqi witnesses are testifying, seeking justice on those accused of random and wanton killing.

The visiting Iraqis will see an American judicial system up close, albeit one that is not always pretty. They may even end up unhappy with the final verdict. Regardless of outcome, they will see that blind justice remains an American ideal embedded firmly in the system. It remains an ideal worth defending. And it should instill pride at home and be promoted worldwide.

While 17 Iraqi families may find justice, what of the slaughtered 1,700 Iraqis? How will their families, or the families of the Iraqi Sunnis who are victims of past and present sectarian retribution, find justice or develop hope for a better and more secure future?

In the past, it would take American commitment. Going forward, it requires courageous individuals of Wallenberg’s caliber and enlightened homegrown national leaders. It will also require societal accounting for atrocities and a willingness to confront individual failure.

The Swedish ambassador to Hungary, Karin Olofsdotter, said at Wallenberg’s commemoration: “It is our duty never to forget.” What new memories of justice will pervade the cradle of civilization’s collective consciousness?


Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu, and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

Read more articles by Markos Kounalakis



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