The Deep Meaning of Obama’s Invocation of a Norm Against Chemical Weapons

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Obama used the words norm and norms repeatedly when he was trying to justify bombing Syria. Michael Bresciani, among others, correctly criticized him for doing so. I’d like to point out a criticism that has gone unnoticed, which is that Obama’s justification using the term “norm” is deeply totalitarian. This is even more important to the extent that this view has found support among other political figures and organizations in the world, because then they are all thinking like totalitarians.

If there is a rule or a legal proclamation that states have made against chemical weapons, that is one thing. Such a rule if disobeyed is subject to punishments. That is how states ordinarily behave within their own notions of legality (to be distinguished sharply, I might add, from the natural law and justice advocated by libertarians). Obama is going way beyond this state-devised legal framework when he advocates punishments based on norms, not legal rules or what is called “international law”. A norm has no sanctions attached to it. Breaking it may be thought wrong by those who believe in the norm. The norm is a moral, not a legal, standard. If Syria is bombed by other states because it has broken a moral, not a legal standard, then this means that these bombing states have assumed a moral authority that they will enforce with arms. This is totalitarian. It means that they do not even have to pass one of their so-called “laws”, which are already from the libertarian standpoint not justified and not real laws anyway. It means an even flimsier excuse for applying force, and an excuse that can be spun in any number of directions and alter with the peculiar moral fashions of the times, the places and the rulers. What state cannot easily generate many such moral excuses for intervening in the affairs of others states and nations?

Obama said that he was anxious to preserve this norm as a protection of U.S. national security and would intervene unilaterally. I am saying that his posture and the like posture of any state or organization that is advocating violence on the basis of a norm-violation is that of a totalitarian. It goes beyond even the legal frameworks within which states currently operate. The men and women of power who operate states have already sought to bury natural law in the deepest of pits, never to hear from it again. Impossible as it is to bury the natural law that applies to human beings, this attempted burial has succeeded only in bringing chaos and destruction to the world, as the 20th century demonstrates. Now Obama, the head of the most powerful government of this unfree country, threatens to exercise power based not even on legal rules, but on norms. Is not the totalitarian character of this claim of his clearly evident? Establishing such a precedent can only generate even more chaos than is already present among states that claim powers to make just about any legal ruling they please.

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