A bipartisan group of senators want Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to implement a "diplomatic surge" to help alleviate famine in several war-torn or terror-plagued African countries.
"[There is an] urgent need for a 'diplomatic surge' in the next couple weeks to prevent millions of people from dying unnecessarily from starvation," Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and nine colleagues wrote to Tillerson.
They warned that 20 million people in four countries — Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen — are in danger of starvation. Diplomatic efforts to resolve that crisis will involve working governments struggling to restrain a terrorist threat or even riven by civil war. And the call for increased humanitarian aid could cut against State Department plans to lower foreign aid levels as part of budget cuts slated for the upcoming fiscal year.
"[M]illions of innocent people will starve to death without concerted and urgent action in the coming weeks," they wrote. "State and/or non-state actors in each of these regions have blocked or hindered humanitarian access—depriving the world's most hungry people of the food they need. Such egregious acts are deeply deplorable, but the good news is that there are steps the Department of State can take to potentially address some of these man-made obstacles."
The senators — Young, along with Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Cory Gardner of Colo., Arizona's Jeff Flake; and with Democrats Ben Cardin of Maryland, Connecticut's Chris Murphy, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and New Jersey's Cory Booker — have a set of requests and recommendations tailored to each country. Yemen (which, like Somalia, is one of the countries affected by President Trump's travel ban), presents a particular challenge to diplomats given that it is the scene of a civil war between proxies of Iran and the U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia.
"We ask that the Department of State work urgently with stakeholders to persuade combatants to permit humanitarian groups increased access to Red Sea ports like Hodeida to deliver much-needed assistance to vulnerable communities," they wrote.
Their appeal might put pressure on Trump and Tillerson's efforts to trim the State Department budget for next year. "We urge the Department of State, in conjunction with the U.S. Agency for International Development, to identify countries that can join the United States in meeting these financial needs," they wrote. "We ask that you issue a directive requiring that ambassadors in all relevant countries demarche their host government about making contributions without delay. We also ask that you notify Congress without delay if any additional authorities or appropriations are required to address the urgent humanitarian needs in each of these regions."
Trump's budget request, if implemented, would cut about one-third of the budget for international diplomacy in order to offset an increase in defense spending. "I think clearly, the level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking in the past – and particularly in this past year – is simply not sustainable," Tillerson told reporters last week.
This story was corrected to note that Sen. Young was the lead signatory on the letter, not Sen. Rubio.