Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, is a former George W. Bush administration official who is close to militarist factions in the Republican Party. Although he at times espouses views contrary to those of many neoconservatives, Doran has advocated a passel of "regime change" policies targeting Middle East countries.
Doran's track record includes stints as a professor at Princeton University and as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as head of Near East and North African Affairs in the National Security Council (NSC) and later as an assistant secretary of defense during the second George W. Bush administration. Appointed to the NSC post in August 2005, Doran replaced Elliott Abrams, one of the few core neoconservatives who remained in the administration during Bush's second term. Before joining the Hudson Institute in November 2014, Doran was also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Doran has been a strident critic of the Obama administration's foreign policy. In September 2012, Doran and coauthor Max Boot, an outspoken neoconservative ideologue based at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in a New York Times op-ed that President Barack Obama had, during his first term, effectively pursued a doctrine of U.S. military power that "involves getting into a conflict zone and getting out fast without ground wars or extended military occupations." However, the writers lamented that the administration was failing to pursue this "Obama Doctrine" in Syria, a country that Doran and Boot argued was ripe for military intervention. They wrote: "We cannot wait for the United Nations to act; that is highly unlikely. Nor can we expect the Free Syrian Army to oust Mr. Assad on its own; it is not a cohesive organization. Instead, America must identify those elements on the ground that are the most effective, easily supplied and amenable to help."
Doran has been particularly critical of the Obama administration's efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. In a widely noted February 2015 article for Mosaic titled "Obama's Secret Iran Strategy," Doran argued that the Obama administration's overarching Middle East strategy was to turn Iran into "a friend and a partner." He lambasted the nuclear negotiations as ignoring "the only policy that every president since Jimmy Carter has pursued till now: vigorous containment on all front, not just in the nuclear."
Doran called the November 2013 interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, which effectively froze Iran's nuclear program in exchange for Iran gaining access to small amounts of its foreign exchange reserves, a "sign of American retreat." In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, during which he appeared alongside David Albright and Gary Samore, Doran urged Obama "to sign a new sanctions bill that will demonstrate to the Iranians, and to our allies in the region, that our patience is not endless." He added: "The second step is to dispel our allies' perception of a silent partnership with Iran. That step begins with, but is by no means limited to, building up an effective opposition to the Assad regime in Syria."
Doran voiced support for a controversial speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress to challenge President Obama's Iran strategy, telling Breitbart News in February 2015 that it would be "wonderful" for Netanyahu to "lay these issues out clearly so that we start debating what Obama is doing."
Doran has also strongly pushed back against suggestions that the United States should work with Iran to combat the so-called "Islamic State" group in Iraq. "The suggestion of a united U.S.-Iran front is more reminiscent of the wishful thinking among conservatives who argued in the 1930s that Britain and the United States shared a common interest with Nazi Germany in countering communism," he wrote in a June 2014 piece co-authored with Max Boot.
Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar rebuked Doran and Boot: "This sort of thinking represents not only a missed opportunity to make U.S. diplomacy more effective but also a recipe for further inflaming that vast battlefield."
Earlier, in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Doran and coauthor James Glassman, the conservative talk show host of the program Ideas in Action and director of the George W. Bush Institute, called for stepping up regime change efforts in Iran. They argued that the country "may pose the greatest threat to global stability and American security." Doran and Glassman called for "soft power" strategies—as opposed to military intervention or compromise—to change the "character of the Iranian leadership," namely by supporting dissidents and tightening sanctions. A cornerstone of their proposal was "to provide moral and educational support for the Green Revolution opposition movements" and to increase communications efforts in the country, including by ramping up "taxpayer-funded Radio Farda and Voice of America satellite TV" and "vigorously protest[ing] attempts by Iran to jam broadcast signals in defiance of international law." They concluded, "Too often in foreign policy our interests demand that we compromise our core values. With Iran, however, we have been blessed with remarkable luck: Our strategic and moral imperatives stand in perfect alignment. And Iranians like Americans. The Iranian challenge appears more amenable than any other serious national threat to a soft-power solution. Let's get going."
Doran has argued for more U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. In a September 2014 debate organized by Intelligence Squared, Doran joined the Wall Street Journal's Brett Stephens in arguing that U.S. military actions in the Middle East have not exacerbated the region's problems.
"I would say that the Middle East is like having diabetes," Doran stated during the debate. "You can't—you can't get rid of it. You have to—you have to manage it." He added: "And so my argument is that—that a bias toward action and a bias toward military action is the best way to treat the disease."
National Security Council
Doran's NSC appointment was viewed by some observers as an effort by the administration to buttress the hardline faction within the National Security Council, which had been represented by Abrams, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and Hadley's deputy J.D. Crouch. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote that Doran and Abrams were among a coterie of Iran hawks in the administration, who viewed U.S. attacks in Iran as having a potentially positive impact on events in Iraq. According to an unnamed Pentagon consultant interviewed by Hersh, these hawks dismissed the argument that Iranian involvement in Iraq would jeopardize the lives of more U.S. servicemen, saying, "Yes, there will be Americans under attack, but they are under attack now."
Experts who supported President George W. Bush's "war on terror" championed Doran's appointment. Patrick Clawson, a proponent of military intervention in Iran and head of the neoconservative-aligned Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Daily Princetonian that Doran is "a careful scholar and he's been prepared to say things based on scholarship that make people in both parties uncomfortable. That actually garners you respect. It shows you have deep understanding of the subject and that you're prepared to share the truth even when it's unpleasant to those hearing it."
Skeptics of Bush's foreign policy also spoke approvingly of Doran, citing his academic achievements and innovative analyses of Middle Eastern issues. F. Gregory Gause, a scholar at Vermont University, told the Washington Post that Doran wrote "the best piece after 9/11," adding however that his "politics on the Middle East are pure neocon. He believes democracy has to come to the region and America should play a major role. He thinks Arab public expression for the Palestinians is really about anger at their own governments. I disagree."
The piece Gause referred to was "Somebody Else's Civil War," published in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs. The piece, described in Doran's White House bio as "an influential article on Osama bin Laden," argued that "war with the United States was not a goal in and of itself but rather an instrument designed to help [bin Laden's] brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish among the believers." According to this theory, which runs counter to much of the administration and neoconservative rhetoric about "why they hate us," Al Qaeda is much more interested in toppling governments allied with the United States than actually taking on the United States: "Americans, in short, have been drawn into somebody else's civil war." Reflecting the apparent influence of this argument, according to the Washington Post's Robin Wright, was Bush's second-term "emphasis on democracy as the salve to extremism."
On the other hand, Doran's views represented an excellent foil for an administration roiled by years of criticism due to its close association with controversial neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. Although many key neoconservative figures like Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith had left the administration by the time of Doran's appointment to the NSC, Doran's arguments provided additional rationales for continued U.S. intervention in the Middle East without neoconservative ideological baggage.
Though Doran was broadly supportive of the Bush administration's agenda in the Middle East, his views have at times contrasted in important ways with those expressed by neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks. For example, in the January/February 2003 edition of Foreign Affairs, Doran struck a critical tone on Israel-Palestine, arguing that "there are many reasons why Washington should distance itself from misguided Israeli policies such as the building of settlements in the occupied territories," a position anathema to most neoconservatives.
However, later in the article, he criticized observers who argued that the U.S. priority in the Middle East should be resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, not going after Saddam Hussein or Al Qaeda. As "guarantor of the contemporary Middle Eastern order," wrote Doran, the United States "must indeed help address the festering wound of Arab-Israeli conflict, for so long as several million Arabs chafe under unwanted foreign rule the realities of Palestine-as-place will continue to help fuel the disruptive power of Palestine-as-symbol. But those who say that it should be tackled before or instead of Iraq and Al Qaeda have their strategic priorities backward. The near enemies must be met first, both because the danger from them is more urgent and because countering them successfully will actually ease the drawn-out task of addressing the far enemies of occupation, tyranny, and social and economic malaise."
Among his more conspicuous actions at the NSC was Doran's October 2005 meeting with Farid Ghadry. Ghadry is the leader of Syria's opposition party-in-exile, the Reform Party of Syria, and is closely linked to such neocons as Richard Perle. According to Syrian scholar and blogger Joshua Landis, shortly after his meeting with Doran, Ghadry announced that "he was establishing a government in exile and would work to unite Syrian opposition groups along the lines of the Iraqi National Front, which brought together the bickering elements of the Iraqi opposition before the US invasion."
Deputy Secretary of Defense
In April 2007, following two years at the NSC, Doran was appointed deputy assistant secretary of defense in support of public diplomacy, working under Eric Edelman. In this capacity, Doran frequently made public appearances to discuss terrorist networks or testify before Congress on the use of the Internet by terrorists. During May 2007 testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee headed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Doran said that the Internet "is the primary repository of the essential resources for sustaining the culture of terrorism. … The speed with which this dissemination occurs poses a serious challenge to those in the U.S. government working to locate hostile sites and assess their content."(For more on Lieberman's chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, see Chip Berlet, "Chairman Lieberman's 'War on Terror,'" Right Web, September 17, 2008).
During a December 2007 press conference, Doran outlined what he viewed as the three main characteristics of Al Qaeda's ideology, "The first one is the takfirism … branding other Muslims as non-Muslims. Everything that they do flows from that. They say that the leaders of Muslim states are not Muslims because they're carrying out laws other than the Shari'a. Therefore, they're apostates. Therefore, they can be killed. … The second element, I think, is the notion of a vanguard. … I don't know exactly where it comes from. But they have taken some traditions, some canonical Islamic traditions, and from that fashioned the notion that there will always be, at any time in history, a very small group of true Muslims whose job it is to pave the way for the rest of the community. ... The third component, I think, is this secret cellular struggle or this secret cellular organization. That's not really part of the ideology, but the ideology encourages the creation of it. Now, why has it spread all over the world? I think the simplicity of the message, together with the notion of vanguard, makes it very attractive. I think the simplicity of the message, the call to violence and the notion of a vanguard makes it very attractive to people."
In September 2008, Doran was nominated by President Bush to be assistant secretary of state for international information programs. However, the nomination was never voted on by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was returned to the president in early January 2009.