Napoleon spurned the temptation to put an expeditionary force into Lebanon. For that foresight, his reputation has lately gained another notch among military strategists.
Conventional wisdom holds that the wise keep out of Lebanon. It's a quicksand in which armies and peacemakers soon become mired. To use John Steinbeck's metaphor about the Nazi conquest of Norway, ''the flies have conquered the flypaper.''
It's true that President Eisenhower got the Marines in and out under favorable circumstances. But neither Israel since 1982, nor the United States in 1983-84, nor Syria in the past or today is finding it easy to control events driven by tribal strife.
Once burned, the Reagan administration seems to be adopting the conventional wisdom. Washington may be savvy to wash its hands of Lebanon intervention. But Middle East specialists make a good case that the US ought to back other peacemaking attempts in that nation, if America wants to further the larger matter of Arab-Israeli peace.
Two moves are under way for ending war in Lebanon. One is highly visible: the agreement last week by Lebanese President Amin Gemayel in Damascus. It cedes more political power to Lebanese Muslims and creates buffer zones between warring Lebanese militias.
The second move is still being fought out behind the scenes. It is a plan to broaden the role of the United Nations' interim force in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL). That would allow Israeli forces to make a withdrawal to less exposed defense lines.
Putting a UN buffer once more between Israeli and Syrian tanks would lessen the chances of setting off a new Arab-Israeli conflict. It could also keep Syrian forces out of the sensitive southern Lebanon region and create an incentive for Syrian forces to withdraw to less extended positions. The ultimate aim of such withdrawals would be to see both forces eventually depart from Lebanon - a goal many specialists have lately given up as unrealistic.
Nothing is ever simple in Arab-Israeli matters. Layers of hostility, self-fulfilling propaganda, and Machiavellian scheming complicate every move. But there is some reason to believe that an expanded UN peacekeeping role in the south of Lebanon might become acceptable to all sides.
The underlying reason is that it would provide more advantages than risks. Conversely, doing nothing involves an increasing risk for Israel - and probably for Syria as well.
Publicly, Israel continues to disparage UN peacekeeping. But some high-ranking Israeli officers who now have tasted the problems of occupying southern Lebanon are said to be privately more respectful of the capability of the international UNIFIL force.
The advantages of a UN buffer for Israel are:
* Reduced casualties.
* Opportunity to form a tighter defense front and shorter supply lines.
* A chance to test withdrawal in phases.
* And most important, increased likelihood that local Druze and Shiite Muslim communities in the south would not welcome back Palestinian guerrillas - or become so embittered themselves against Israeli occupiers that they take to guerrilla attacks.
Advantages for Syria:
* Getting someone other than Israel to referee relations between the suspicious Muslim and Christian communities in the south. (This would allow Damascus to concentrate on peacemaking among the factions in Beirut.)
* Reducing the immediate danger of collisions with superior Israeli military units.
* Moving Israeli forces farther away from Syria's Bekaa Valley stronghold.
Advantages for Lebanese factions:
* An expanded neutral international buffer between colliding groups.
* Some hope for normalizing daily commerce. (It may take a Lebanese farmer as long as six days to get through checkpoints on the Awali River to take his produce to market.)
* Momentum toward possible Israeli and Syrian withdrawal.
Israeli military men at the highest level are reported to say privately that they would like to find an orderly way to pull back and protect their troops from the war of attrition being waged against them in Lebanon.
During the current Israeli election campaign, dispassionate discussion of that military logic is difficult. The ruling Likud coalition is in a ticklish position. Any pullback of forces lays the Shamir government open to the charge that the Begin-Sharon-Shamir leadership fought the war in Lebanon - with more than 500 men lost - to no purpose. This is a more serious version of the criticism aimed at the Reagan administration over its withdrawal from Lebanon with nothing accomplished and more than 250 Marine casualties.
A Shamir aide recently told a European visitor: ''Sure, we'd like to tighten our defense lines in the north. Sure, we'd like to cut those casualty reports. But if we pull back and one shell lands in a village in northern Israel, what kind of election chances do you think we'd have in July?''
So the general expectation is that any expansion of the UN role in southern Lebanon would have to wait until after the Israeli election July 23.
The US mission to the UN is protecting Israel's short-term interest by delaying action on the UNIFIL matter until wording which singles out Israel is changed. Many Middle East hands believe the US will not aid Israel's long-term interest if it blocks the plan altogether.