Some events are like this.
They creep up like a stalking wolf.
Or, as Nietzsche put it, on doves’ feet.
We don’t hear them coming and need a third ear to make out, behind the ‘still, small voice’, the echo of the explosion.
It happened at Leuctra, in Boeotia, on that day in the 4th century BC when the sacred band of Thebes cut 400 Spartiate equals to pieces, tolling the end of Lacedaemonian hegemony, though no one knew it at the time.
Or at the battle of Chaeronea, 30 years later, which marked the start of the waning of Athenian power.
Or the seemingly minor battle of Pydna, in Thessaloniki, which set in motion the crumbling of Alexander’s dream and was the first real victory of the nascent Roman empire.
Or the battle of Adrianople, which began as a policing operation by a legion sent to rein in bands of Ostrogoth raiders; no one saw it, at the time, as Act I of the fall of Rome.
I described this mechanism in The Empire and the Five Kings (2019).
It was at work in the little known but decisive battle of Kirkuk, where Donald Trump abandoned America’s Kurdish allies in Iraq.
The same scenario is unfolding before our eyes as Joe Biden leaves Afghanistan high and dry.
Why is this not the right course?
Because a great power owes a debt to its allies.
Because, as far away as Afghanistan and its war may seem, the image of the crowds of women, children and men clutching at the wings of American planes leaving Afghanistan is devastating.
Because the wrong is even worse than the one committed in Saigon in 1975, which is recognized as a dark day in the history of American decline, but where Lyndon Johnson at least had the dignity to pull out not before — but after — he had organized an orderly departure of 135,000 Vietnamese civilians who had loyally served the United States.