But I refused to admit defeat. I needed to consult the Cardinal. I left messages on the Dark Web, and at length arranged a rendezvous with a wizened old monk at an absinthe bar on the Faubourg St Denis. He sold me a virtual reality visor and showed me how to download the corresponding app on my smartphone. He told me to come at the stroke of midnight to 21 Place des Vosges, on the oldest square in Paris, where the Cardinal had resided for a dozen years.

The square was empty when I donned the visor and activated the app. Instantly the space was thick with spirits. Marie Antoinette bore her severed head like a jack-o-lantern, while Danton and Robespierre held their respective heads up in a lively debate. A spectral chorus line from the Folies Bérgere shadowed a dark figure with reverence. As the shade approached me, I discerned in its faint purple glow the features of Richelieu.

Zut!,” said the ghost. “It’s you again. What do you want this time?” He looked like Charlton Heston in The Three Musketeers, but he sounded like Maurice Chevalier. The chorus girls giggled.

“Please, Eminence – grant me a few moments from your eternal sojourn,” I implored.

“Be quick about it,” Richelieu said. “As you can see, I have company.” The chorus girls giggled again.

I got right to the point. “What should we do about Iran?,” I asked. “We can’t allow them to attack the oil facilities of Saudi Arabia unpunished.”

“Why don’t you bomb them?,” the Cardinal grimaced maliciously.

“Your Eminence knows as well as I do that Iran would respond by firing its medium-range missiles at its neighbors’ oil installations, and stop the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf. Of course, we could destroy Iran, but the outcome would be a disaster for the world economy.”

“Then why not blockade them?”

“As Your Eminence surely is aware, Iran has shore batteries dug into the coast of the Persian Gulf, and might be able to sink an American ship or two, not to mention some other nasty surprises.”

“Perhaps you should employ covert operations to overthrow the regime.”

I was becoming exasperated. “Your Eminence doubtless is informed that in 2011 Iran’s counterintelligence broke up an American spy network, by detecting CIA communications via public websites. Iran showed the system to China, and the Chinese rounded up dozens of American spies,” I replied.

“Then at very least you might reinforce Saudi Arabia’s defenses against the drones and cruise missiles that Iran used to attack the Abqaiq refinery,” the ghost taunted.

“Our Patriot anti-missile system is useless against low-flying drones directed by operators on the ground, as Your Eminence well knows. The only air defense system designed for this kind of threat is the Israeli Iron Dome, but it is a delicate matter for the Saudis to buy arms from Israel.”

The ghostly Cardinal grinned contemptuously. “Since you know the answers to all of your questions, why are you wasting my time?”

“Are you saying that we should do nothing at all?,” I remonstrated.

“Do not ask stupid questions, and do not put even stupider words into my mouth. You have painted yourself into a corner, mon ami. First, you destroyed the only Sunni government that Iran feared, namely that of Saddam Hussein. Second, you stood godfather to an Iraqi Shiite regime in the name of majority rule, and thus turned Iran’s mortal enemy into an Iranian ally, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards direct Shiite militias who are more powerful than the regular army. Third, you armed Sunni rebels in Syria, which brought Russia into the theater as an ally of Iran. Fourth, you relied on the same Shiite militias to degrade ISIS, and gave legitimacy to Iran’s de facto occupation of Iraq. For 15 years you have done everything possible to enhance Iran’s power, except for the economic sanctions, which immiserated the Iranians without constraining the Revolutionary Guards. Do not imagine that you can undo this in a day.”

Richelieu continued: “Your military is beholden to defense contractors who have saddled you with an outdated air defense, and your intelligence services are the playpen of bumbling bureaucrats. You do not even have the technical means to ameliorate the situation on the ground.”

“Your military is beholden to defense contractors who have saddled you with an outdated air defense, and your intelligence services are the playpen of bumbling bureaucrats”

“Then what should we do about Iran?,” I implored the shade.

“First, ask the right question, you silly American,” said the shade of Richelieu.

“Please, Eminence: What is the right question?” The cardinal raised a spectral hand as if to dismiss me.

The spectral chorus of the Folies Bergère broke in with a hellish parody of Cole Porter: “You do something to us that nobody else can do. Do, Richelieu, do, what you do so well!” they sang, their ectoplasmic legs high-kicking in chorus.

“Well, ladies, since you ask so nicely,” the Cardinal said, “the right question is, ‘What should we do about the world’?”

“What does that mean?” As soon as the question popped out of my mouth I felt like an imbecile.

“It means simply to look at the world map and consider your position. Ten years ago you could have bombed Iran with impunity, and justified it as retaliation for the deaths of American soldiers at the hands of Iran’s minions in Iraq. But now your stupidity has brought other players to the party whom you cannot ignore. China is Iran’s largest trading partner, and most importantly its supplier of missiles and missile technology. Russia has parlayed modest resources into a major power role. Turkey has turned Iran’s misery into an important source of revenue, helping it to circumvent your sanctions.”

“But we are not on the best of terms with Russia, China or Turkey just now.”

“Your weakness,” gurgled Richelieu, “is of your own making. You cannot tell China that you can do without its trade, and expect it to forfeit its lucrative trade with Iran – let alone to help you out of a cul-de-sac. You cannot place sanctions on Russia and expect Russia to help you sanction Iran. All three countries are rubbing your nose into your problem by conducting joint naval exercises.”

“Are you saying that we have to strike a deal with China and Russia to keep Iran under control?”

“Do I have to draw you a picture?,” the Cardinal retorted, as a trickle of ectoplasmic drool appeared on his chin. “Fifteen years ago America could have anything it wanted within the realm of possibility, but it chose something outside the realm of possibility, namely to remake the world in its own image. As a result you have squandered your substance and dissipated your morale. Now you must choose carefully what you want. You cannot incite the enmity of China and Russia, for example, and at the same time constrain Iran. Do whatever you like. Except as a source of amusement it is of no concern to me.”

I wanted to ask another question, but the virtual reality program had gone haywire. A chasm began to open across the Place des Vosges, leaving an endless void beneath. The crowd of Gallic ghosts fled. I tried to run but my feet seemed rooted to the ground. I tried to rip off the visor but it stuck to my head, and the ground vanished beneath my feet. I plunged into the abyss, tumbling and falling until I lost consciousness.

I awoke next to an empty bottle of absinthe and a copy of the China Daily.