While the media spotlight shines on a few high-profile countries, a bevy of smaller countries continue to operate under the radar. Out of the public eye, the United States maintains a constant presence in these smaller countries to the benefit or detriment of the liberal international order. Below is a brief overview of American involvement in four forgotten countries that won’t make front-page news.
Despite President Trump’s flippant campaign remark declaring NATO “obsolete,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently toured the Baltic states to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to protect NATO’s eastern flank. The visit corresponds with the announcement of Zapad 2017, a quadrennial Russian military exercise that could involve up to 100,000 Russian troops maneuvering in Belarus and along Lithuania’s eastern border.
Russian policy experts and NATO security analysts are worried Russia will employ various forms of subterfuge to increase troop deployment along the Lithuanian border while strengthening their appeal to in the Baltic states. Russia has already begun conducting a fake news campaign to erode NATO support among Russian speakers in the Balkans. One accused NATO of recruiting Russian speakers to use as “guinea pigs” to test new “physical, biological, and other techniques” to prepare for an “invasion of the Russian Federation.”
The threat of expanding Russian influence in the Baltic region combined with an increased military presence should provoke concern. Already, President Trump’s 2018 defense budget appropriates $4.8 billion to NATO defense in Europe, up from the $3.4 billion President Obama allocated in 2017, but additional military support could be necessary if Russia escalates.
Due to the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar, the Gulf has descended into further disarray and threatens to fracture completely. Unsurprisingly, Yemen and its internationally recognized government led by President Hadi joined the embargo against Qatar in early June. But while the Qatari embargo captures the attention of the public, news of another Abu Ghraib, backed by the UAE and the U.S., has passed without comment.
In June, The Associated Press reported the UAE has set up “at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen.” In a follow-up article, The Atlantic quoted U.S. defense officials admitting “participation” in the black sites even as Human Rights Watch reported the numerous abuses conducted at these sites. It sounds ominous because it is.
The sites are allegedly part of “the war on terror” in Yemen, a country home to both al-Qaeda and ISIS. The presence of these black sites, and the absence of U.S. condemnation, only fuels anti-U.S. propaganda and delegitimizes the American presence in Yemen. Abu Ghraib is and will be forever a stain on the American soul, and we would be well served to condemn any similar activities.
Though Sudan is on President Trump’s travel ban list and is officially listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, the president is expected to permanently remove the sanctions the United States placed on Sudan in 1997 and 2006. One week before President Trump’s inauguration, President Obama signed an executive order placing a temporary stay on the sanctions due to Sudan’s increased cooperation on counterterrorism measures and humanitarian efforts, and its cessation of hostilities in Sudan’s conflict areas.
However, not every policymaker is thrilled. In an upcoming, bipartisan letter to be delivered to President Trump, representatives in the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan argue lifting the sanctions is a premature and potentially dangerous act in a region already destabilized by infighting. Sudanese forces are rumored to be targeting civilians in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, as well as supporting former members of the violent Islamist group Seleka. More perniciously, despite these reports, the Sudanese government has hired Washington-based lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs to “help permanently repeal” U.S. sanctions.
Sudan and President al-Bashir, a man indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, might be able to claim victory as early as July 12, 2017, when the White House is required to reevaluate the temporary cessation.
In early June, the biggest protests since the Arab Spring rocked northern Morocco. The protests began after a fishmonger named Mouhcine Fikri was crushed in a garbage compactor during a confrontation with the police. Thousands of poor Moroccans who felt the incident was symbolic of their treatment at the hands of King Mohammed VI’s government have rushed to the streets in protest. A typically stable country, Morocco is the United States’ biggest ally in North Africa against violent Islamic extremism.
As a lodestone of moderate Islam throughout the Islamic world, Morocco’s stability is in the American interest. In 2011, King Mohammed VI presciently acquiesced to most of the demands of the Moroccan Arab Spring protesters, and set Morocco on the path to reform. Morocco is still a monarchic system, but the current ruling family has pushed progressive, controversial reforms to integrate more Moroccans into civil society.
Rising with the tide of young disgruntled protesters is the threat of violent Islamist movements. Even amidst this threat, Morocco has offered to mediate the GCC-Qatari conflict underway in the Gulf. The United States would be well-served to advise Saudi Arabia and Qatar to take Morocco’s offer. Morocco’s reputation as a progressive, moderate state is being challenged by these demonstrations, but Morocco’s role as counterweight to dangerous ideologies in the Islamic world should not be diminished.
Joshua Cayetano is an intern for Providence. Originally from the Bay Area, California, he is a member of the inaugural class of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University, where he also studies political science and history. In the spring of 2017, Joshua received the State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to study in Amman, Jordan. His interests include Middle Eastern affairs, the application of faith in the public square, and advocacy for “the least of these.”
Photo Credit: Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, at the opening of the 20th session of The New Partnership for Africa’s Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 31, 2009. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released) Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons