Thank Heaven for Little Ghouls

Really interesting wars, Cardinal Richelieu informs me in a dream-sequence recounted in this morning's "Spengler" essay at Asia Times Online, because they kill off the fathers, and then the sons. Richelieu presided over what we call the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which reduced the population of Central Europe by about two-fifths, although there have been numerous others, including the Peloponnesian War and 1914 to 1945. Richelieu " looked rather like the portrait by Phillipe de Champaigne, but sounded like Maurice Chevalier."'

Here is the nub of the conversation. For the fun part, that is, instructions on how to conjure ghosts in the sewers of Paris, you will have to refer to the original.

"We are a bit confused about Syria," I began. "Its leader, Bashar al-Assad, is slaughtering his own people to suppress an uprising. And he is allied to Iran, which wants to acquire nuclear weapons and dominate the region. If we overthrow Assad, Sunni radicals will replace him, and take revenge on the Syrian minorities. And a radical Sunni government in Syria would ally itself with the Sunni minority next door in Iraq and make civil war more likely."

"I don't understand the question," Richelieu replied.

"Everyone is killing each other in Syria and some other places in the region, and the conflict might spread. What should we do about it?"

"How much does this cost you?"

"Nothing at all," I answered.

"Then let them kill each other as long as possible, which is to say for 30 years or so. Do you know," the ghastly Cardinal continued, "why really interesting wars last for 30 years? That has been true from the Peloponnesian War to my own century. First you kill the fathers, then you kill their sons. There aren't usually enough men left for a third iteration."

"We can't go around saying that," I remonstrated.

"I didn't say it, either," Richelieu replied. "But I managed to reduce the population of the German Empire by half in the space of a generation and make France the dominant land power in Europe for two centuries.

"Isn't there some way to stabilize these countries?" I asked.

Richelieu looked at me with what might have been contempt. "It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba'athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi'ites.

It is a matter of calculation -- what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba'ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria -- tyrannies founded on the same principle -- were mirror images of each other."

"What happens if the majority rules?," I asked.

"The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world," the cardinal replied, "you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.

"The minorities have no recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death. In the case of Iraq, the presence of oil mitigates the problem.

The Shi'ites have the oil, but the Sunnis want some of the revenue, and it is easier for the Shi'ites to share the revenue than to kill the Sunnis. On the other hand, the problem is exacerbated by the presence of an aggressive neighbor who also wants the oil."

"So civil war is more likely because of Iran?"

"Yes," said the shade, "and not only in Iraq. Without support from Iran, the Syrian Alawites - barely an eighth of the people - could not hope to crush the Sunnis. Iran will back Assad and the Alawites until the end, because if the Sunnis come to power in Syria, it will make it harder for Iran to suppress the Sunnis in Iraq. As I said, it is a matter of simple logic. Next time you visit, bring a second bottle of Petrus, and my friend Descartes will draw a diagram for you."

"So the best thing we can do to stabilize the region is to neutralize Iran?"

"Bingeaux!" Richelieu replied.