CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The only time I was privileged to witness a grandmaster chess player perform was a demonstration simultaneous chess match at a university. Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek, who had a long nose, no chin and nicotine stained fingers, played 15 boards. Every one of his student opponents had several eager advisors and time to think as the grandmaster played the other 14 boards. At the end of his bravura performance, he had lost only one game, tied three and won eleven. Wow.
As far as I know, our president does not go in for chess, but if he had, he might have done well even against Kavalek. Mr. Obama, with his entering into the Syrian question, has begun a simultaneous game with those combatants and with the Republicans, and with the Russians and other involved countries -- and he may be on track for a multiple win.
What would it mean to "win" these games? Obama is an incrementalist; while he would no doubt prefer clear victories, he might be satisfied with a sort of win that does not involve Mr. Assad's immediate defeat -- all that is needed is to make apparent progress in limiting the use of chemical weapons and/or get some sort of "peace process" started. After all, no less a war leader than Winston Churchill said something to the effect that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
Similarly, with Congress, perhaps the president need only posture, recite ultimatums, back away, move forward, backward, sideways. How does this constitute any kind of win? Well, as this razzle-dazzle takes place, the deficit ceiling is raised, a continuing budget resolution is passed, the ACA goes fully into effect, etc. Obviously war drama splits the Republicans and trumps budget drama: there would be hesitation to fool around with gestures that could distract the commander in chief.
The overall point here is that, while Mr. Obama's passionate domestic opponents, continually try for quick dramatic wins, our subtle incrementalist leader satisfies himself with a string of marginal victories that constantly improve his position. To switch game metaphors, his opponents -- like the mighty Casey at bat -- swing for the stands and inevitably strike out while Coach Obama gets an occasional base hit and advances his runners. After a while it becomes abundantly clear that Mr. Obama and his party can eventually get on the scoreboard, while his furious opponents cannot.
But war is neither chess nor baseball; if we launch just one Tomahawk missile, the game then becomes craps. So: while it may be true that if enough parties can be drawn to the peace table real progress might be made (especially if Iran is there), it is also true that one or two unlucky dice rolls and, presto: quagmire. If our optional Syrian involvement goes on and on, a level of disgust, fear and anger not seen since Vietnam will explode.
Of course most Republican potential alternative leaders are themselves tainted with let's-go-to-war boosterism. There is, however a part of the GOP that can play the isolationist card with steely credibility: libertarians.
Those who are familiar with the nation's best-known, young libertarian, might scoff that the election of an ophthalmologist -- Dr. Rand Paul -- to be a president is unlikely. Maybe. But just to complete the circle of irony consider this: there is now in this world already an ophthalmologist president. He is Bashir Assad, currently president of Syria.
Palmer, of Charleston, is a retired professor and chess player.