When someone kills someone who is about to kill another person, is it murder? This kind of action could be classified as “defense,” and in many societies is considered justified. Police are given guns specifically to protect and defend civilians; and through international agreement countries have militarily intervened in genocides and armed conflicts in other countries (“police actions”). A police action has legitimacy when it stops at preventing harm to other people; if it is extended to the exercise of power over a group of people, then it is no longer a defensive action and becomes an offensive action.
The war in Iraq is an excellent example of these points.
In 1990, Iraq militarily invaded its neighbor Kuwait, which it claimed was stealing oil. The U.S. convinced the international community to force Iraq’s troops out of Kuwait, which it did during the 1991 Gulf War. In the execution of the war, the U.S. set up permanent military bases in the region, ostensibly to enforce the isolation of Iraq so it could not regain an ability to threaten its neighbors. The existence of the bases and decade-long exercise of persistent power over a Middle Eastern country by mostly U.S. forces was considered an act of aggression by many in the region, who responded with what they considered defensive terrorist attacks, the most spectacular being on September 11, 2001.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s leadership was trying to rebuild its military strength, mainly to control its population and be able to respond to potential aggression by Iran, who it perceived as its greatest potential enemy. Iraq resisted international weapons inspections, which violated the terms of its cease-fire agreement with the United Nations. The U.S., driven by paranoia following the 9/11 attacks, urged the U.N. to apply more pressure on Iraq and was able to restore access to the country by weapons inspectors. By then, however, the U.S. was committed to the military overthrow of the Iraqi leadership, which it achieved in 2003.
The U.S. did not leave Iraq after its “victory,” but instead maintained an occupying presence in the country over the next four years. Its building of permanent bases, imposition of its own culture on the country, pilfering of the country’s assets and resources, and inability to replace basic infrastructure it had destroyed, inflamed the people who had been threatened before, sparking terrorism and alienating the people the U.S. had claimed it wanted to free.
What started out as a “police action” (protecting Kuwait) grew into aggression, which de-legitimized the entire enterprise.