Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Michael Doran

    • Brookings Institution: Senior Fellow
    • Defense Department: Former Deputy Assistant Secretary
    • National Security Council: Former Director Near East and North African Affairs

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Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, 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 the Middle East.

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."[1]

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."[2]

A scholar whose record includes stints as a professor at Princeton University and as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Doran 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.[3] Appointed to the NSC post in August 2005, Doran replaced Elliott Abrams, one of the few core neoconservatives who remained in the administration throughout Bush's second term. Abrams had been promoted in February 2005 to the post of deputy assistant national security adviser.

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."[4]

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."[5]

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."[6]

The piece Gause referred to was "Somebody Else's Civil War," published in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs.[7] The piece, described in Doran's White House bio as "an influential article on Osama bin Laden,"[8] 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."[9]

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.[10]

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."[11]

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."[12]

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."[13] (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."[14]

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.[15]

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[1] Michael Doran and Max Boot, "5 Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now," New York Times, September 26, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/opinion/5-reasons-to-intervene-in-syria-now.html?smid=pl-share.

[2] James Glassman and Michael Doran, "The Soft Power Solution in Iran," Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704541004575011394258630242.html..

[3] White House, Biography of Michael Doran, http://web.archive.org/web/20080307004410/http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/doran-bio.html (Web Archive); Johns Hopkins University, "Biography of Michael Doran," Johns Hopkins University Unrestricted Warfare Symposium, http://www.jhuapl.edu/urw_symposium/Images/BioPDF/Doran.pdf.

[4] Seymour M. Hersh, "Last Stand," The New Yorker, July 10, 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/10/060710fa_fact.

[5] Chanakya Sethi, "NES's Doran Rumored for National Security Council Post: Said to be Pick for Israel-Palestine Affairs," Daily Princetonian, May 11, 2005, http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2005/05/11/12903/.

[6] Robin Wright, "An Eye for Terror Sites: NSC Puts Scholar in Charge of Middle East," Washington Post, November 17, 2005, p. A29

[7] Michael Scot Doran, "Somebody Else's Civil War," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2002. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/57618/michael-scott-doran/somebody-elses-civil-war.

[8] White House, Biography of Michael Doran, http://web.archive.org/web/20080307004410/http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/doran-bio.html (Web Archive).

[9] Robin Wright, "An Eye for Terror Sites: NSC Puts Scholar in Charge of Middle East," Washington Post, November 17, 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/16/AR2005111602120.html.

[10] Michael Scott Doran, "Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2003, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/58616/michael-scott-doran/palestine-iraq-and-american-strategy.

[11] Michael Scott Doran, "Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2003, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/58616/michael-scott-doran/palestine-iraq-and-american-strategy.

[12] Joshua Landis, "The Paris Opposition Meeting Is a Bust," SyriaComment.com, October 18, 2005, http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/Joshua.M.Landis-1/syriablog/2005/10/paris-opposition-meeting-is-bust.htm.

[13] Quoted in Technology Daily, " Security; Terrorist Activism Online Concerns Experts, Lawmakers," Technology Daily, May 3, 2007.

[14] Federal News Service, "Foreign Press Center Briefing; Subject: Countering Ideological Support for Terrorism," December 13, 2007, http://thecsquare.blogspot.com/2008/01/countering-ideological-support-to.html..

[15] Library of Congress, THOMAS, "Nomination: PN2083-110; Nominee: Michael S. Doran," received by the 110th Congress, September 26, 2008.

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Michael Doran Résumé


    • Brookings Institution: Senior Fellow
    • Robert F. Wagner Graduate School for Public Service: Former Visiting Professor
    • Council on Foreign Relations: Adjunct Senior Fellow
    • Princeton University: Former Professor of Near Eastern Studies
    • University of Central Florida: Former History Professor


    • Defense Department: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, 2007-2008
    • National Security Council: Director for Near East and North African Affairs, 2005-2007


    • Stanford University: B.A., 1987
    • Princeton University: Ph.D. 1997


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