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Little fights to maintain a big power

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America may have started out a republic but it is now an empire. That is the conclusion of a growing body of writers who argue that the United States must abandon its traditional squeamishness about foreign adventures and embrace the imperial mantle. And why not? US firepower in Afghanistan astonished not just the primitive Taliban, but the Chinese and the Europeans as well. America's unquestioned power is coupled with unique threats and, so the argument goes, it must be willing to intervene wherever disorder looms – whether the Philippines, Somalia, or Iraq.

Max Boot's nuanced and lively contribution to this chorus is that America has a long record of intervention abroad and that this experience holds useful lessons for the nation's future. "The Savage Wars of Peace" offers a history of America's "small wars," little-known conflicts where the US was called upon to suppress irregular forces in inhospitable locales around the globe. He shows that such deployments were a frequent part of American military operation, but their story has long been ignored in favor of the country's more glamorous major wars.

Boot's account is principally a military history in three parts, focusing first on America's interventions as a rising commercial power, then its actions as a young great power, and finally its place as a superpower.

In the republic's early years, its interventions consisted mainly of naval skirmishes with pirates who were targeting US commerce. Other early engagements included intervention in a tribal war in the Marquesas Islands (recently invaded by the CBS TV show "Survivor") and a mission to protect US interests in China during the Second Anglo-Chinese War. In recounting these campaigns, Boot has an ear for colorful anecdotes. He describes each battle in exhaustive, at times exhausting, detail.

American intervention took on a more substantial character at the beginning of the 20th century when the US started occupying foreign lands – for example, the Philippines, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Boot argues that these actions were driven not by commercial interests but principally by a combination of idealism and a desire to keep out the influence of other powers.

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