09/05/2013 06:58 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

The Shadow Knows: Four Plays That Define Obama's Syria Strategy

When in 2003 President George W. Bush told his fellow Americans that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were lurking, he was surely running a play. If he was telling the truth, it was simply a Fiat, the just-the-facts-ma'am, no-spin strategy. If he was not, the play was a Red Herring, the strategy of misdirection and Bush's method for creating the ruse and reason for rolling tanks into Baghdad.

Now, as Barack Obama weighs an attack on Syria's ostensible WMD cache, the ambiguity of his predecessor's moves and motives are casting a long shadow onto the sitting president's conscience and a citizenry that cares only marginally about Syria and the Assad regimes's probable poisoning of hundreds, perhaps thousands of its own.

There are four plays (aka, influence strategies) that punctuate Obama's management (or mismanagement) of the Syria question and its use of chemical weapons.

THE LABEL Months ago, when confronted with the possibility that Assad had authorized chemical agents to snuf out rebels, Obama said flatly that such a thing would amount to the crossing of a "red line." His ultimatum may have been inadvertent, but the soundbite was ill-considered and, like a label, it stuck. Thus, he knitted himself into both a moral and political corner. It was a rare strategy misstep by Obama.

THE PAUSE More recently, when confronted with certain proof that Syrian citizens, including children, were poisoned, Obama reverted to the play we call the Pause. Reading the tea leaves of tea partiers and his own party too, he needed to buy time. Finally, when Britain's Parliament pulled its support for a Syrian strike, he could no longer stay so silent.

THE CRAZY IVAN Obama pivoted and followed British PM David Cameron's lead, running what can only be considered a Crazy Ivan on his presumed foes, Republican lawmakers, and declaring his intent to seek Congress's counsel and consensus for a Syria strike. Like Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Obama was running at his target, sudden and swift, but utterly out of ammunition.

THE MIRROR As this week unfolds, Obama's zone-flooding flesh-pressing plan is an easy-to-code Mirror play, an information campaign to "reflect the facts" of the matter and, he hopes, to win his small war.

Barack Obama is a facile playmaker, noted in our many blogs for his ability to traverse the spectrum of 24 unique political plays. But unlike so many successful campaigns and public policy debates, the president this time faltered. His Label was instinctive, not planned, and it fed his opposition (at home and abroad) instead of confounding them. Obama tried to buy time and stall, all in the form of the Pause, but this only magnified his misstep because a play that puts a players head in the sand is a play that gives opponents the opportunity to point at it. Suffering in his own silence, what the president did next was remarkable for the fact that his quick Crazy Ivan lives on the high-engagement side of The Standard Table of Influence. Diametrically different from the insular Pause, it is the play that runs not away but straight at detractors. It is, accordingly a high-risk strategy with commensurate high rewards... if it works.