BIDI BIDI CAMP, Uganda (AP) — Face-to-face with victims of South Sudan's famine and civil war, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee strongly defended U.S. foreign aid on Friday despite President Donald Trump's proposed deep cuts in humanitarian assistance.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee visited the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis in northern Uganda, just across the border from South Sudan, in a pointed response to Trump's "America First" platform that would slash funds for diplomacy and foreign aid.
Without "U.S. leadership, these people would have no hope," Corker told The Associated Press in an interview. "I think Americans, if they saw what I see here, and I see in other places, would be glad that our country does what it does."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds significant sway over the foreign budget, and the proposed cuts almost certainly would need Corker's approval.
The United States is the world's largest provider of humanitarian assistance and in 2016 gave roughly $2.8 billion in food aid, but the Trump administration has thrown such funding into doubt. At the same time, Trump wants to boost military spending.
At the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, Corker served food to South Sudanese who recently fled fighting in the East African nation, where the United Nations has warned of ethnic cleansing.
A grandmother in a flowing green dress huddled with five of her grandchildren, clutching metal cups of food. The family had walked two weeks to arrive at the refugee camp. Nearby sat a woman with a gaping bullet wound in her ankle.
"The 1 percent that we spend on diplomacy and assistance, if we spend it wisely, then the expectations are that the men and women that we love so much in uniform are less likely to get into a hot war or in harm's way," Corker said.
Trump's proposed budget, announced in March, would cut 28 percent of the budget for foreign aid and diplomacy. The budget plan, which still needs approval by Congress, would put pressure on all nearly all foreign aid, according to U.S. officials.
The budget would "spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home," Mick Mulvaney, the president's budget director, said last month after the plan was announced.
Few countries are likely to suffer as much as South Sudan if Trump's budget is approved. The country is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, receiving more than $2 billion from 2014 to 2017.
The world's youngest nation was plunged into civil war in December 2013, and the fighting contributed to desperate conditions that led the U.N. to declare a famine in February. Roughly 1 million people are said to be on the brink of starvation.
On Friday, South Sudanese refugees told Corker stories of misery. One man described how his hometown of Yei has been ripped apart by ethnic fighting. A woman told Corker how she was raped during her trek to Uganda. And throughout the day, Corker heard the same message again and again.
"They are giving us little food," the woman said. "Food. Food. Food."
"I don't know what the answer is when you have brutal leaders who care nothing about the people that they are to govern and are willing to allow their soldiers, their men, to rape, kill, to terrorize people," Corker told the AP.
The United Nations says South Sudan is part of the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, along with Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. The U.N. estimates that 20 million people could starve.
Surrounded by refugees, Corker did not outright criticize Trump's proposed budget, but he outlined an alternative vision of foreign assistance.
Corker said there is no doubt Trump's proposed humanitarian and diplomacy cuts are drastic, but added that "I've never seen a president's budget ever come along" without changes.
The senator did not say what the foreign aid budget would be, but he proposed reforms to a law that requires foreign food aid to be grown in the United States and shipped under an American flag.
He blamed a "cartel in Washington" of maritime companies and "a small group of people in Washington" that cause less people to be fed. Instead, he said that allowing food aid to be grown closer to the site of a crisis and shipped under any flag would be cheaper and more efficient.
"It's taken in some cases six months for those products to actually get here," Corker said.