White House Ratchets Up Yemen Pressure as Crisis Worsens

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is ramping up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease its blockade of Yemen amid fears that the crisis is slipping further into catastrophe and people will lose access to clean drinking water, President Donald Trump’s foreign aid chief said.

A Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of the Arab world’s poorest nation is preventing fuel used to pump water from getting to Yemen’s people, Mark Green, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said in an interview. While the Trump administration has courted Saudi Arabia’s government and continues to provide support for airstrikes over Yemen, Green’s criticism reflects increasing frustration over the course of the conflict.

White House Ratchets Up Yemen Pressure as Crisis Worsens

“We’re in a humanitarian catastrophe here, and this is the kind of crisis that does not get better with the passage of time -- it gets much much worse,” Green said in his office at USAID’s headquarters in Washington. “You’re seeing the intensity ratchet up from the highest level of the administration because the crisis is literally getting worse by the hour.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. announced an additional $130 million in food aid to help alleviate the Yemen crisis. The United Nations World Food Program will use the money to help feed the country’s most vulnerable people, USAID said in a statement.

Green’s comments are the latest in a series of remarks by top administration officials, including Trump, demanding that Saudi Arabia ease the blockade. Saudi Arabia’s pressure is threatening to cause widespread famine, as the kingdom fights Houthi rebels believed to have backing from Iran. The administration issued at least three statements last week critical of the Saudi approach to the conflict.

At least 14,000 people have been killed or wounded since the Saudi-led offensive began in March 2015. Almost 1 million people have contracted cholera, and 3 million, out of a population of 28 million, are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

“Ultimately there will have to be a political solution to Yemen,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told staff at the State Department headquarters in Washington on Tuesday. “We are engaged with the Saudis trying to get those ports reopened so we can get assistance delivered.”

Last week, Tillerson was more blunt, calling on Saudi Arabia’s leaders to “think through the consequences” of their actions and be “a little bit more thoughtful.”

“It is well past time for a complete cessation of fighting, allowing humanitarian access, because it is a catastrophe occurring before our eyes,” Green, 57, said in the interview on Dec. 8. He said there is no substitute for access to Yemen’s ports -- permission that the Saudi government has so far refused to give.

Lebanon, Qatar

The increasingly dire situation in Yemen comes amid a wave of tumult in the Middle East linked to the broader rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The U.S., like most governments, was taken by surprise last month when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri flew to Riyadh and abruptly resigned before returning to his country weeks later and withdrawing his resignation. The U.S. has also grow frustrated over a continuing dispute between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, which hosts a U.S. military base used in the fight against Islamic State.

The turmoil also comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked out a key Middle East role, using his military to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and courting allies in Egypt and Turkey. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to the Middle East this month in the wake of Trump’s decision last week to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision criticized across the Muslim world.

Green, who’s been in his post since August, said his main focus has been what he called the “sheer volume of humanitarian need that we see in the world right now and that nearly all of it’s man-made.”

In September, he announced a pledge of $575 million to help ease famines in Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia. All of those crises have been caused by human conflict.

Budget Cuts

A former four-term Wisconsin member of Congress and ambassador to Tanzania, Green oversees USAID at a time when the Trump administration has proposed slashing its budget and the funding for some of its highest-profile programs by about 30 percent. The agency has bipartisan support and lawmakers from both parties say those proposed cuts, like ones envisioned for the State Department, are unlikely to succeed.

And while Trump and his staff have championed an “America First” foreign policy that reduces the emphasis on U.S. involvement overseas, Green said he’s had “nothing but support from the White House.”

“I believe in these development tools and I believe in American leadership,” said Green, who led the International Republican Institute before rejoining the government this year. “What I’m trying to do is to show people -- even those who may be skeptics -- we can actually do this, we actually have the ability to make some things better.”

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