The Euphoria Point

What causes wars that start well to end badly? What turns a bold and brilliant military operation into a depressing war of attrition? How does an operation that begins with a favorable balance of forces end in mishaps - like the one that occurred yesterday at the UNRWA school in Gaza - and disillusionment?

War is a complex business with a lot of uncertainty and many surprises. But there is one recurring phenomenon that causes military operations to go wrong. You could call it "the euphoria point," and define it as follows: Rapid success at the start of a campaign boosts the leaders' spirits and encourages them to continue the fighting "until victory is achieved," out of a belief that applying additional force will result in the defeat of the battered enemy. This euphoria can cause them to scornfully reject proposals for cease-fires and peace agreements. In the meantime, the enemy regroups, the initial achievement gets bogged down and the promised victory slips from the hands. What began as a walk in the park ends in pointless attrition, or even in searing defeat.

The euphoria point has tripped up many of history's greatest strategists and military leaders. Here are a few examples. In 1940, after defeating France in a blitzkrieg, Hitler did not stop and forge a deal with Britain. Instead, he was tempted into thinking that bombing London would defeat the Britons. He failed, and even then he did not learn the lesson. A year later, he made the same mistake with his invasion of Russia. Instead of exploiting the initial achievement of Operation Barbarossa in order to wrest an improved diplomatic agreement from Stalin, he kept up the military pressure. And Russia proved to be his grave - just as it was for Napoleon a century earlier.

Japan made the same mistake in World War II, after having successfully attacked Pearl Harbor and seized control of southeast Asia in a series of lightning operations. Its leaders' euphoria led them to believe, falsely, that they could maintain this empire instead of needing to look for exit points. The result was the destruction and occupation of Japan, and the gallows for its failed leaders.

But the victors learned nothing from their experiences. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who defeated the Japanese in 1945, made the same mistake they did just five years later, in the Korean War. In a daring amphibious landing, he succeeded in rescuing South Korea from the north's occupation. But then, instead of stopping, he continued to pursue the North Koreans to the Chinese border. And euphoria defeated him: China intervened, the Americans were repulsed, MacArthur was ousted and the war ended in a stalemate that continues to this day.

Israel fell into the euphoria trap after its lightning victory in the Six-Day War. It believed that if it just applied more force, it would be able to stay in the Sinai Peninsula forever. The battered Egyptians, who in the War of Attrition that followed saw their own cities destroyed, offered peace, but Golda Meir scornfully rejected it. The result was the Yom Kippur War, which caused Israel a national trauma, and then the withdrawal from Sinai, after thousands of unnecessary funerals.

George H.W. Bush was an exceptional leader: He halted the Gulf War in 1991 after the rapid liberation of Kuwait, and was not tempted to pursue the Iraqis to Baghdad. But his son was tripped up by the euphoria point after having rapidly deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003: He was led astray by delusions of dismantling the Iraqi state and turning it into a Western democracy. The result was a war of attrition that undermined America's status as the world's superpower and policeman.

Ehud Olmert is a military leader of far smaller stature than Napoleon, Admiral Yamamoto or MacArthur. But like them, he is falling into the euphoria trap. In both of the wars he has conducted - in Lebanon two and a half years ago and in Gaza today - Olmert has had trouble stopping. Instead of halting after the aerial assault, which surprised the enemy and dealt it a painful blow, he believed in 2006, and he believes now, that victory was just around the corner. He therefore insisted on continuing to apply pressure and set exaggerated terms for a cease-fire. In both cases, against Hezbollah and against Hamas, the result will have proven to be identical: an erosion of the initial achievement, casualties and a decline in both international support and domestic unity. Olmert may have read the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War and followed its rules regarding the decision-making process, but he is once again making the same basic mistake.

It is still not too late to correct this mistake. In 2006, Israel was dragged into five weeks of attrition that ended in a national trauma. In 2009, it should call it a day and get out of Gaza - before the glowing euphoria becomes a painful hangover.