One of the main ideas of this blog is that the results of current decisions can be mostly known by comparing them to similar decisions and results from the past. If that is the case then what result can a decision by the Israeli government to halt its Lebanon operation have? There is one main historical example, Samnia’s decision at the Caudine Forks, and the example of Napoleon’s exile to Elba and the Versailles Treaty that back it up.
The Caudine Forks is a defile in the Central Italian section of the Apennine Mountains. In 321 BC, during the Second Samnite War between Rome and Samnia, the Samnites laid an ambush at the Caudine Forks. The Roman army marched into the defile only to find its exit barricaded. When they returned to the entrance they found it blocked by the Samnite army. At this point the Samnite leader didn’t know what to do so he contacted his father who told him to make peace with the Romans and let them go home unharmed. He didn’t find this satisfactory so he again asked his father what he should do. This time his father said to kill all the Romans. This was a bit unexpected given the first piece of advice and was also unacceptable. He summoned his father who explained that if he let the Romans go home in peace he would have made a friend in Rome and they wouldn’t have to fight again. If he killed all the Romans he would destroy Roman power so they wouldn’t have to fight again. The son chose the middle way, he disarmed and humiliated the Romans and sent them home. Angry and still with their strength, the Romans resumed the war 5 years later. They would ultimately destroy the Samnite peoples after a third war. The lesson was that trying to get the best of both worlds usually causes you to end up with the worst.
The next two examples reinforce the reality that the middle way is almost always the worse way. After defeating Napoleon in the 1813 campaign in Germany, the Coalition had a choice to make: destroy Bonapartism to its core, or leave it in charge of ante-bellum France. They tried the latter option but Napoleon thought it was ruse and refused to respond. That meant the only other option was to either kill or exile Bonaparte and to disband his army. The Coalition chose instead to give Napoleon the Italian Isle of Elba to rule and reduced but maintained his army while they created a humiliating peace treaty for France. Not surprisingly, the French and Napoleon were left angry and with a still formidable army waiting for its Emperor to lead it again. After victory in a nearly disastrous Waterloo campaign the Coalition did get it right the second time. Bonaparte was exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic, the army was disbanded, and France occupied. The end of World War I is also an example of this tendency to go halfway. After the German army surrendered to what it expected would be decent terms that reflected the situation on the battlefield, the Allies chose to instead pull a fast one on the Germans. They imposed a humiliating treaty that was in no way reflective of events on the ground and yet still left the mightiest nation in Europe the mightiest nation in Europe. All it did was leave German smarting for revenge and with the means to attain it.
Now were at a situation where the Israeli government is deciding whether to call off its offensive in Lebanon and accept a cease fire with Hezbollah. The Israelis have trapped Hezbollah. It made an incredibly stupid move and opened the door to Israel annihilating it. One difference in this case is there is no generous peace offer option with Hezbollah. If Hezbollah were surrounded at the Caudine Forks and the Samnites let them go home, that would only reinforce in Hezbollah’s eyes that Samnia is weak and needs to be destroyed. At any rate, any such possibilty is in the past now. Israel’s two decisions now are 1) go all the way and continue the offensive no matter how angry the Lebanese people get and destroy Hezbollah, 2) choose the middle way and stop it now after getting the Lebanese people angry and leave Hezbollah with the strength to come after Israel again, this time with the support of the Lebanese people. Whatever choice Olmert makes, the Lebanese people and Hezbollah are going to be angry at Israel (well double so in Hezbollah’s case if that’s possible). The difference is whether Olmert will leave the Lebanese people and Hezbollah the capacity to achieve their revenge. History shows time and time again that leaders mostly choose the middle way so it would not surprise me if Olmert does now. However, history also shows what will happen if he does.