Philosophical Footnotes on Biden and Trump in Yemen

Last week I published a blog post with Students for Liberty about Biden’s role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and his plans to stop supporting it. Briefly, here is the story of the U.S. in Yemen so far: In 2015 the Obama administration (in which Biden was the VP) gave vocal support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, sold them weapons, and offered aerial refueling services. Bernie Sanders introduced a joint resolution to the Senate to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition which passed but was vetoed by Donald Trump. Since 2015 Saudi involvement in the war has resulted in 10,852 civilian casualties and over ninety unlawful airstrikes with over twenty-four of those airstrikes involving U.S. munitions. (edit: only a day before publishing this post, Biden announced that his administration will end the support for the Saudi-led coalition!)

What I don’t mention in the blog post is whether Biden or Trump are responsible for the destruction in Yemen. They are. And, I’m going to give what, I think, is a convincing philosophical account of why that is the case.

Causal Relationships

First, to what extent does the U.S.’ involvement in the war result in Saudis harming civilians? A lot, according to experts. As Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC says, “If it weren’t for American support, if that were to be withdrawn in the future … I think Saudi Arabia would feel compelled to end that war faster than they would like.” Is this really true? I don’t know, I’m a philosopher, not an international relations expert. But here’s someone else saying this; someone else saying this; and someone else saying this. So, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is the case and that U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition is what allows them to drop bombs on innocent civilians. Then, U.S. support for the Saudis causes civilians being murdered; its absence would lead to a different result.

Okay, so with that out of the way, what is Biden’s role in all of this? His administration with Obama controlled an executive arm of the government which had the power to move weapons and fuel to the Saudis, i.e. support them. It may seem clear that this means that Biden is thus responsible for the U.S. support for the Saudis. But as legal philosopher Frank van Dun points out, this isn’t entirely obvious:

I do not think that a libertarian would be prepared to say that the leader of a criminal gang … should be allowed to go scot-free merely because he might conceivably be able to prove that he never participated in the execution of his own orders; that he merely spoke and cannot be held responsible for the fact that other obeyed him. But, on the other hand, no libertarian would be prepared to say that the mere fact that some racist bigot writes a pamphlet in which he advocates the expulsion of all dark-skinned immigrants – that the mere fact of writing that pamphlet involves him in the actions some of his readers might undertake against guest workers.

How can we tell whether someone is guilty of causing something to occur by their speech act? Luckily, we have the philosophy of language to guide us. In his aptly named 1962 book, How to Do Things with Words, J.L. Austin discusses the causal power of speech acts. Austin outlines three types of speech acts; “locutionary acts”, “illocutionary acts”, and “perlocutionary acts”. Locutionary acts are, according to Austin, “roughly equivalent to uttering a certain sentence with a certain sense and reference, which again is roughly equivalent to ‘meaning’ in the traditional sense.” Austin contrasts this with illocutionary acts which are “utterances which have a certain (conventional) force” such as “informing, ordering, warning, undertaking, etc.” A perlocutionary act is “what we bring about or achieve by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading.”

An order from Biden would be an illocutionary act. His speech act has a certain force to it (in causing weapons and fuel to move into the possession of the Saudis. Where does this illocutionary force come from? It comes from Biden’s authority as the Vice President! In her 1993 article, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts”, Rae Langton outlines what she terms “authoritative illocutions”. These are “actions whose felicity conditions require that the speaker occupy a position of authority in a relevant domain.” Did Biden occupy a position of authority in a relevant domain? Certainly! In her 2012 book chapter, “Subordinating Speech” Ishani Maitra offers four ways by which someone can gain the authority necessary for an authoritative illocution. First there is “basic authority” which one gains from their social position. As Vice President of the United States, second in command of the executive branch of the government, Biden certainly had the proper social position to have authority. Second, there is “formal authority” which arises from documents attesting to one’s authority. There are plenty of documents that show that Biden was, in fact, the Vice President. There would have been letterhead from his office, orders form his desk, and most importantly, documents which outlined his win in the electoral college in 2012 for Vice president. Thirdly, one can gain authority “as a result of the actions of others”. People give Biden authority by listening to his orders in the past. Also, people referred to him as Vice President with little objection. His authority as Vice President was clear on this front as well. Finally, Maitra suggests that authority must be held for a clearly demarcated period. Biden knew that on January 20, 2017, he would cease to be Vice President. As he famously said at a Joint Session of Congress while counting the electoral college votes for President Trump and Vice President Pence, “It is over.” On all four fronts, Biden had the necessary authority to make an authoritative illocution. And in ordering the sale of weapons and aerial refueling for Saudi planes, he caused those things to happen and is thus responsible for them.

Trump; A Case of Doing vs Letting Happen?

Donald Trump played no part in the original order to support the Saudis. However, he had the power to order that the U.S. end their support but chose not to. Is that the same thing? Is doing and letting happen morally equivalent? The answer is no. In response to James Rachels’ view that there is no essential difference between killing and letting die, Jan Narveson points out in his book Moral Matters that “We don’t think that at every moment of the day we are or might as well be out there murdering all those poor innocent people who, after all, are dying by the thousands as we sip our tea and whom, quite possibly, we could be helping to live a bit longer.”

But in 2018, Trump did much more than letting happen. He actively intervened in an attempt to end the U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition by vetoing Sanders’ resolution. He did an action which led to the continued participation of the Saudis in the war in Yemen which, in turn, led to attacks on civilians. Thus, Trump is at least responsible for the destruction wrought after he vetoed the resolution.

What’s my verdict? Both guilty! And whatever the punishment would normally be for someone guilty of being complicit in the murder of civilians should follow.

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