Guidance from the Ghost of Richelieu
Five years ago I interviewed Cardinal Richelieu, the evil genius of the Thirty Years War and best known as the bad guy in ‘The Three Musketeers.” Richelieu is long dead, to be sure, and Asia Times does not print interviews with ghosts, so I had to make up the answers for him. But I tried to do so in the spirit of Europe’s supreme grand strategist, who undermined the hegemony of the Hapsburg Emperors and established France as Europe’s dominant power for a century and a half, albeit at an unspeakable human cost. Now that a new ‘Thirty Years War’ is underway in the Middle East, I returned to the secret places beneath Paris to interview Richelieu once again. As a matter of full disclosure, I made up the answers this time, too.
Paris had changed in the five years since I last descended into the secret passages beneath its sewers (“Conjuring the Ghost of Richelieu,” February 28, 2012). Passers-by stared at me the first time I trudged across the Pont de l’Alma to the entrance of the underworld, wearing fisherman’s waders and carrying a brass spittoon and a magnum of Chateau Petrus.
Now, among the green-haired tourists and motley peddlers, I didn’t get a second glance. An involuntary shiver passed through me as I began the descent. What I was about to see filled me with dread. But I had urgent need of his counsel.
The preternatural gloom devoured the faint beam of my flashlight as I climbed down to the ninth level below the Seine, past the 19th-century brickwork, into stone vaults encrusted with the grime of the ages before arriving in the secret chamber lined with the neatly stacked bones of dead Carthusians.
I uncorked the Petrus and poured it into the spittoon, smashed the empty magnum against its mouth, and held tight to the jagged end to frighten off the spirits drawn by its bouquet.
There was Mitterrand with his mistresses, a sad-eyed Leon Blum, amid a crowd of Moulin Rouge chorus girls and maimed veterans of the Great War. The ghost of de Gaulle circled the spittoon with feigned nonchalance and then dived at it. I brandished the broken bottle and the shade stopped in midair. De Gaulle faded into transparency until nothing but nose and mustache were visible.
Then a shudder passed through the canaille of Gallic dead, and they fluttered away like startled game birds. A gelatinous shape with a cardinal’s red hat glided toward me and inserted an amorphous head into the narrow mouth of the spittoon.
A gurgling sound ensued and the shade gained consistency and color, and then, with an ectoplasmic pop, there emerged the head of Armand Jean du Plessis, the Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu. “You have 10 minutes,” he said. This time he resembled Charlton Heston in The Three Musketeers film rather than the portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, and the Maurice Chevalier voice rang vaguely of Clouseau.
“America can’t seem to get what it wants in the Middle East,” I began carefully. “It complains about Iran’s nuclear missiles and expansion into Syria, and the Iranians don’t care. The Turks just sent their army after US-allied Kurdish militias in Syria, even though Washington asked them not to. America’s secretary of state asked Iraq to expel Iranians who control the country’s Shiite militias, and Iraq told him the Iranians will stay. We get no respect and we can’t get anything done.”
“That is because you have the wrong objectives,” Richelieu sneered. “You still are the more powerful actor, but you waste your power on illusory goals.”
“Do you mean America should let Iran do whatever it wants?” I asked.
“Do you take me for a fool?” sputtered the ghost. “Iran and its puppet the Assad government in Syria have expelled half the population of Syria from their homes. Do you think that happens by accident? Iran wants to bleed out the Sunni majority in Syria and replace them with Shia colonists from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“An objective, mon ami, is a desired end state. You want a stable Turkey as a NATO partner, the territorial integrity of Iraq, the integration of Iran into a regional security architecture with a more amenable regime than the present mullahs”
“It is the biggest example of what you call ethnic cleansing in history. If that occurs you will have a permanent change in the facts on the ground, and most likely there will be an Israel-Iran war in the next two years. The price of oil will double and you will have a world recession,” Richelieu added.
“Why do you say we have the wrong objectives?” I protested.
Richelieu looked at me with condescension. “An objective, mon ami, is a desired end state. You want a stable Turkey as a NATO partner, the territorial integrity of Iraq, the integration of Iran into a regional security architecture with a more amenable regime than the present mullahs,” the ghost said. “You want a stable division of Syria into ethnic cantons, and you want the Kurds to do your fighting on the ground while postponing their national aspirations. None of these are possible end states, so you waste your time and resources.”
“But American policy has always promoted stability,” I said.
“You are like the Habsburgs during the Thirty Years’ War,” Richelieu sniffed, “holding on to the status quo because you don’t know what else to do. When the Habsburgs acquired the thrones of Spain and Austria –not to mention Naples, Sicily and Flanders – they ruled over more than twice the population of France. And they controlled the wealth of the New World! Yet I ruined them, just as China and Russia will ruin you.”
“Why isn’t stability a possible end state?” I insisted.
“That is largely your fault,” said the shade. “I explained to you when you first came to me that the imperial powers of World War I made the region stable for a century by imposing minority governments upon majorities – Sunnis ruling a Shia majority in Iraq, Alawites ruling a Sunni majority in Syria.
“The Sunnis ruled Iraq from Ottoman times until your president Bush decided to promote majority rule and handed Iraq to the Shia. You can suppress the Sunnis but you cannot eliminate them. Nor can you put the Kurdish genie back into the bottle,” Richelieu added. “Turkey is a Kurdistan in the making; the Turkish Kurds have twice the fertility of the Turks and in 20 years will have a majority of young people.
“Iran has the worst problem of all: It will have the worst elderly dependency ratio outside of Japan in 20 years. The borders no longer fit the peoples they contain. Turkey will lose its southeastern provinces, Iraq will collapse into the three Ottoman provinces from which it was assembled, and Iran will become a Shia imperial power or nothing at all.”
“Where does that leave the United States?” I asked.
Richelieu said: “With Russian military backing and a trillion dollars of Chinese investments across Eurasia, it leaves the United States out in the cold, which obviously you perceive, or you would not be here beneath the sewers of Paris to pester me with foolish questions.”
“You are saying that the United States of America should be a spoiler rather than a stable actor!”
“What should America do?” I implored. The Cardinal’s color already had begun to fade. “First, understand your weakness! And then do what the weaker party does best: Make chaos your friend.”
“You are saying that the United States of America should be a spoiler rather than a stable actor!” I remonstrated.
“Bingueaux!” said Richelieu. “You have to play really dirty.”
I asked him for an example. “Consider the present farce in Syria,”
Richelieu enthused. “Washington first announced that it would arm a militia of 30,000 Kurds to oppose ISIS as well as Iran, and Turkey objected – so Washington said it really didn’t mean it. Then Turkey invades Syria to attack America’s Kurdish friends, and America does nothing, and looks weak and foolish.
“Remember what I did with Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden,” the ghost added. “I backed the Protestants of Germany when they fought the Habsburgs, and when the Habsburgs crushed them, I paid the Danes, and when the Danes were defeated, I paid the Swedes to invade Germany in 1630. Germany was bled white, and my successors then were able to humble Spain and Austria.
“Let the Kurds be the Sweden of this new Thirty Years’ War. Help them give Turkey a bloody nose! Then let them revolt against the Shia overlords of Iraq, and stir up the Kurds of Iran against the Iranian mullahs,” Richelieu continued.
“One does not work out the details of such campaigns; one stirs things up, watches the result, and steps hard on the sorest toe. France was a second-rate power when I took the reins, and by 1657 we were the masters of Europe. And we would have remained so if that fool Bonaparte hadn’t invaded Russia.”
“But Washington won’t do this. No one wants to take responsibility for losing Turkey as a NATO member. America fought and bled for the territorial integrity of Iraq, and doesn’t have the stomach to dismember it,” I protested.
“Then why do you come here to waste the time of Richelieu?” snarled the ghost with contempt. “You will be humiliated because you cling to the status quo as a drowning sailor clings to an anchor. You imagine that you are fighting for this or that objective, but you do not see that you really are fighting to remain a superpower at all. You are all in, or not at all in the game.”
“What do you mean, ‘all in?’” I shouted, but it was too late. Richelieu by this time had turned gelatinous, and the chiseled features of Charlton Heston faded into the puffy lines of Casper. The form grinned and then flew around the ossarium.
The canaille of French dead oozed out of the stacked bones and crept toward me. I grabbed the spittoon and tried to run for the stairs, but my waders had turned to lead and my legs refused to move. The room spun around me. I awoke next to an empty bottle of Armagnac in front of a television playing reruns of the Hannity Show.