The White House's handling of the politics of Syria has looked so clumsy that many people have said facetiously that President Obama is playing "12-dimensional chess." Obama is thinking so many steps ahead, contemplating all possible outcomes, that his moves are inscrutable to the rest of us dummies — the joke being that no such lofty thinking is actually happening. So many smart writers have used the term that it got us wondering, What is 12-dimensional chess? Humans experience three dimensions. Spacetime is the fourth dimension. Even string theorists only say there could be up to 11 dimensions. Is it an obscure political reference? A literary term non-nerds missed out on in high school? A long-lost piece of pop culture? Few people know.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein reported, "Privately, Hill aides joke that everything is going exactly to President Obama’s plan. It’s just that that plan is to stay far, far away from Syria. This is the (tongue-in-cheek) 12-dimensional chess interpretation of the Obama administration’s Syria strategy." Last Friday, The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote that Obama needed to ask Congress for authorization to use military force, even if it risked losing the vote. (Obama later surprised everyone, including his own advisers, by deciding to do just that.) Fallows wrote:
I write the list above in full confidence that Barack Obama, 12-dimensional chess player, has already thought through every move far more quickly and thoroughly than I have. Thus I am left with this puzzle. Why is he doing this? The leaking of the counter-attack plans, the hemming himself in with the "red line," the "who cares about the Congress, I'm going ahead!" all suggest a recklessness and, frankly, a foolishness that I don't associate with Barack Obama even in his least effective phases...
This is not the first time the term has been applied to Obama. In July, Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall tweeted, "So Obama 2009 visit, 12 dimensional chess, #winning right?" (By the timing, this appears to be a reference to his Cairo speech and the post-coup violence there.) A Huffington Post blogger used it to describe Obama's budget strategy in April. Liberal tweeters used it to describe fiscal cliff negotiations in December — except this time it was true! A gay-rights blogger used it to describe Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal negotiations in 2010. That year, Shakesville defined it as "A reference to what political operatives are said to be playing when they assert a strategy is too sophisticated for critics, feminist or otherwise, to understand." During Obamacare negotiations in 2009, Melissa McEwan wrote for The Guardian that "progressives are meant to trust in the ubiquitously referenced 12-dimensional chess game they're allegedly playing, to which they've given none of their supporters the playbook or rules." Commenters on both liberal and conservative blogs use it.