(The essay below appeared in Asia Times on Feb. 28, 2012. I offer it here unaltered in the spirit of the holiday season — DG).
“The Pont d’Alma,” I told the taxi driver, and climbed into the back of the Citroen, balancing the big copper spittoon on one knee and the magnum of Chateau Petrus on the other.
“You are to meet someone, monsieur?,” inquired the driver. He must have seen the waders under my trench coat. “Richelieu. Richelieu. Richelieu,” I muttered. “That’s the first time I hear someone ask for it in dactylic hexameter,” the driver said. We pulled up in front of the entrance to the sewers of Paris at the Pont d’Alma – “the bridge of the soul”.
Carefully I descended to the ninth level below the Seine. And 20th-century tiles gave way to 19th-century bricks and 18th-century stonework, through the malodorous filth of the ages, until I found myself in the secret ossarium of the Carthusian monks. So thick was the darkness that the beam from my small flashlight seemed to lose itself in the gloom. It could not have been cold, but I shivered uncontrollably. Pyramided skulls stared out like a theater audience.
With the spittoon planted into the muck at my feet, I broke the neck off the magnum and poured the fragrant Bordeaux into the copper receptacle. At once the ghosts appeared: A soldier in bloody armor carrying his head under one arm, the Can-Can chorus from Offenbach’s Orpheus, a grisette whom death could not dissuade from flirting, clerks, cooks and clerics.
A sad-faced Jaures and a prim Clemenceau approached the spittoon, but Francois Mitterand bowed them aside. Brandishing the wine bottle’s jagged neck, I fended them off until, at length, a pale figure appeared, a human form with the texture of a jellyfish. The others shrank away reverently as it knelt before the spittoon and inserted a gelatinous head, imbibing the wine until its translucent covering shone scarlet. It extracted its head from the spittoon with an ectoplasmic pop.
“Make it brief,” said Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu. He looked rather like the portrait by Phillipe de Champaigne, but sounded like Maurice Chevalier.
“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.
“But there are people in the United States, like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who say that attacking Iran would destabilize everything!”
“Such fools would not have lasted a week in my service,” the cardinal sniffed. “Again, it is a matter of simple logic. If Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons is removed by force, upon whom shall it avenge itself? No doubt its irregulars in Lebanon will shoot some missiles at Israel, but not so many as to provoke the Israelis to destroy Hezbollah. Iran might undertake acts of terrorism, but at the risk of fierce reprisals. Without nuclear weapons, Iran becomes a declining power with obsolete weapons and an indifferent conscript army.”
Richelieu’s shade already had lost some color. “What should the United States do in Syria?” I asked.
“As little as possible,” he replied. “Some anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles from Gaddafi’s stockpiles, enough to encourage the opposition and prevent Assad from crushing them, and without making it obvious who sent them.”
“And what will become of Syria?”
The cardinal said sourly, “The same thing will happen to the present occupants of Syria that happened to the previous occupants: the Assyrians, and the Seleucids, and the Byzantines before them. You seem to think the Syrians are at existential risk because they are fighting to the death. On the contrary: they are fighting to the death because they were at existential risk before the first shot was fired. They have no oil. They do not even have water. They manufacture nothing. They cling to ancient hatred as a drowning man grasps a stone.”
“Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” I shouted.
But Richelieu had turned back into a cardinal-shaped jellyfish, and if he gave an answer, I could not hear it. As the he faded, the other ghosts crept out of the stonework and encircled me. Among them I recognized a miracle-working rabbi of Chelm, who screamed, “Spengler! What are you doing here, conjuring spirits of the dead?” I tried to say, “Rabbi, I don’t eat here!” but my lips wouldn’t move and my tongue burned. I woke up with an unspeakable hangover, next to an empty Armagnac bottle and a copy of the Weekly Standard.