"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".
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.
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.
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
"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."
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
"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.
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
"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
"The moment you introduce majority
rule in the tribal world," the cardinal replied,
"you destroy the natural equilibrium of
"The minorities have no
recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death. In
the case of Iraq, the presence of oil mitigates
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."
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
"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
"And what will become of
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.
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.