Bryan Stinchfield

Bryan Stinchfield

Act impulsively, light a match, take credit for putting out the fire, twist the truth, wait for your followers to fawn all over you. Repeat.

True to form, President Donald Trump dishes out some great reality TV, as we saw last week. There’s a lot of drama, a rotating cast of colorful characters, an unpredictable blend of comedy and tragedy, and a healthy dose of poetic license. How could reality TV get any better?

But when it comes to deploying American troops within range of Iranian ballistic missiles, actual reality should matter. It seems clear that Iran didn’t try to kill our troops with their ballistic missiles because its leaders knew an all-out war would end more badly for them than for us — as they do not have nuclear weapons.

Here’s the dose of reality: The conflict with Iran won’t end because Trump read a speech and talked tough Wednesday morning.

Shadow war

To those tempted to thump their chests and brag that we’re the lone superpower once again: Don’t be naive enough to think that Iran will put its tail between its legs and start taking orders from the Oval Office. If this truly was a reality show, then Trump could definitely write that script and Fox News could play it over and over.

Since it is reality with which we ultimately must contend, we should remember what former Secretary of Defense James Mattis often said: “The enemy gets a vote.”

The Iranian leadership has certainly been “voting,” and it will continue to get a “vote” in the future.

Iran and the United States have been fighting a shadow war with each other for decades. This takes the form of war by proxies, economic sabotage, covert action, cyberwar, use of mercenaries and, perhaps most importantly, propaganda.

Most of the shadow war is out of the American public’s eye. Trump’s order to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani brought the violent conflict temporarily into clear view.

But Trump’s tough talk should not fool anyone; the conflict will not end. Rather, it will return to the shadows.

During the next phase of this shadow war, Iran will redouble its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Thus, one of two things will happen.

Either the U.S. will start an overt war to keep Iran from getting the bomb, or Iran will get the bomb. When one abandons myths and wishful thinking, those are the only two outcomes remaining.

‘Durable disorder’

Americans need to ask themselves this question: Which would you rather have in the coming years?

— A president whom 65% of Americans think is dishonest, who is famous for not taking his advisers’ advice, who is impulsive, doesn’t read, doesn’t know history and never served in the military but nevertheless starts a war with Iran that could cost hundreds of thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and mires us in another war in the Middle East?

— An Iran that eventually gets a nuclear bomb?

Since most Americans can’t stomach either scenario, we will continue our shadow war with Iran and hope to buy time.

Some will be placated by not having an overt war, and others will be placated by Trump’s tough talk promising that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on his watch.

For his part, Trump will continue in a long line of American presidents who conduct a shadow war with Iran that only buys time. And maybe that’s good enough. In fact, that’s what writer and foreign policy expert Sean McFate calls “durable disorder.” It’s not chaos, but it’s not peace either.

Similar to Pakistan and Israel, which both developed nuclear weapons covertly, Iran will eventually get a nuclear weapon unless the country is devastated by overt war.

Economic sanctions may eventually bring down the current regime, but it’s wishful thinking to believe that a stable, pro-Western government will take hold if we topple Iran’s current one.

America ran that play in 1953 when the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. That led eventually to the ouster of the shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It also led to the 1979 destruction of the American embassy in Tehran and the capture of 52 American hostages, who were held in Iran for more than a year.

And it led to the dawning of the shadow war between the U.S. and Iran that’s entering its sixth decade.

What we need

Whether Iran develops a nuclear weapon under a Republican or Democratic president will be a random matter.

President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran gave the Iranians an incentive not to pursue a nuclear weapon, but it’s unrealistic to believe the Iranians completely abandoned their efforts to develop the bomb. We just bought time using diplomacy.

Trump’s bellicose words and actions created an incentive for Iran to more quickly develop a nuclear weapon. Trump’s launch of an airstrike to kill Soleimani was an attempt to use military force to buy more time, but it definitely did not solve the problem.

Obama’s diplomatic approach made liberals happy, and Trump’s militaristic approach made conservatives happy. Unfortunately, both groups are living in denial.

Short of full-scale war, Iran will get the bomb; however, this by itself is not a doomsday scenario.

The Iranian regime’s first goal is self-preservation, not the destruction of Israel or the United States.

Similarly, North Korea’s first goal is self-preservation, which is why it hasn’t nuked or started an overt war with South Korea.

This does not mean that I am OK with Iran getting a nuclear weapon, but I’m also not OK with an all-out war in the Middle East. Just because I don’t like either scenario does not mean I will wrap myself in a comforting myth.

What it does mean is that Americans and the rest of the world deserve a president who has the mental skills, personal integrity and relationships with allies to figure out a strategy that provides for the safety and security for all of humanity.

At his core, Trump is an impulsive reality TV star who could have gotten a lot of Americans killed for something that did not fundamentally alter Iran’s intentions or capabilities. What we — and the world — need is an ethical leader who has the ability to craft a strategy grounded in reality.

Bryan T. Stinchfield, Ph.D., is a former Army officer who served in the U.S. intelligence community. He is an associate professor in the business, organizations and society department at Franklin & Marshall College.