While I appreciate the analogy between our real universe and simpler physics-like mathematical models like the game of life, assuming intelligence doesn't arise elsewhere in your configuration, this control problem does not seem substantially different or more AI-like from any other engineering problems. After all, there are plenty of other problems that involve leveraging a narrow form of control on a predicable physical system to achieve a more refined control, ex. building a rocket that hits a specific target. The structure that arises from a randomly initialized pattern in Life should be homogeneous in a statistical sense a so highly predictable. I expect almost all of it should stabilize to debris of stable periodic patterns. It's not clear whether it's possible to manipulate or clear the debris in controlled ways, but if it is possible, then a single strategy will work for the entire grid. It may take a great deal of intelligence to come up with such a strategy, but once such a strategy is found it can be hard-coded into the initial Life pattern, without any need for an "inner optimizer". The easiest-to-design solution may involve computer-like patterns, with the pattern keeping track of state involved in debris-clearing and each part tracking its location to determine its role in making the final smiley pattern, but I don't see any need for any AI-like patterns beyond that. On the other hand, if there are inherent limits in the ability to manipulate debris then no amount of reflection by our starting pattern is going to fix that.
That is assuming intelligence doesn't arise in the random starting pattern. If it does, our starting configuration would to overpower every other intelligence that arises and tries to control the space, and this would reasonably require it to be intelligent itself. But if this is the case then the evolution of the random pattern already encodes the concept of intelligence in a much simpler way then this control problem. To predict the structures that would arise from a random initial configuration the idea of intelligence would naturalistic come up. Meanwhile, to solve the control problem in an environment full of intelligence only requires marginally more intelligence at best, and compared to the no-control prediction problem the control problem adds off some complexity for not very much increase in intelligence. Indeed, the solution to the control problem may even be less intelligent than the structures it competes against, and make up for that with hard-coded solutions to NP-hard problems in military strategy.
On a different note, I'm flattered to see a reference in the comments to some of my own thoughts on working through debris in the Game of Life. It was surprising to see interest in that resurge, and especially surprising to see that interest come from people in AI alignment.