What happened to Michael Doran? It’s a question that has been asked repeatedly, both in bafflement and in anger, in the halls of the elite institutions where the 57-year-old Middle East scholar and former National Security Council senior director was previously seen as a knowledgeable, friendly, even perspicacious example of a type that was tolerated even in liberal Washington circles: straight-arrow Republican from the Midwest who played water polo at Stanford and served as Bernard Lewis’ research assistant at Princeton, before entering government service during the second, less-disastrous term of the Bush administration and then landing a fellowship at the Brookings Institution, for Christ’s sake.
Underneath his weighty resume, though, Doran was less of an Ivy Leaguer than a suburban white guy dad who lived in a split-level house in D.C. with his wife and two daughters, even as his ex-athlete’s build and incisive realist approach to U.S. interests abroad recalled the Cold War policymakers whose portraits hung on the walls of Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. It was easy to like Mike—and to imagine him as a future deputy secretary of something important in a future moderate Republican administration led by Marco Rubio, say.
So what went wrong? How did this seeming paragon of mainstream foreign policy normalcy become a cheerleader for Donald Trump, who last month retweeted Doran not once but twice, which in Washington’s professional foreign policy circles is the mark of Cain. The occasion of this latest disgrace was Doran’s participation in that least captivating of all human endeavors, a panel discussion, where he delivered an analysis precisely no one else in D.C. had uttered: Trump did the right thing when he announced America’s withdrawal from northern Syria.
While Americans fondly speak of “the Kurds,” Doran insisted, there was in fact no such unified entity: The Kurds in Iraq are different from the Kurds in Syria, who are aligned with the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that Doran described as “a Stalinist cult.” President Obama, he continued, aligned America with this sworn enemy of the Turks, who were a necessary if admittedly imperfect cornerstone of the NATO alliance. “I would go a step further,” Doran added. “I think he did so with a significant amount of dishonesty as well.” The goal of American foreign policy in the Middle East now was simple, he asserted: Rebuild the alliance with Ankara, in order to keep conditions in the region from deteriorating even further.
Yet even those who were quick to denounce Doran on social media as a Trump toady and a defender of Turkey’s autocratic leader had reason to feel at least a little bit uneasy about their own black-and-white certainties. Inconveniently, Doran has proven to be right on very big questions on which nearly everyone else in Washington turned out to be wrong. Seen from this perspective, Doran’s major sin is his penchant for taking unpopular, even counterintuitive positions that run against the D.C. grain. If Doran were a Wall Street stock picker, he’d be a billionaire; in the community of foreign policy lifers where predictive accuracy and even basic analytical clarity matter far less than preserving the privileges of the foreign policy guild, his habit of being right was a sure recipe for pariahdom.
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Doran’s unlikely ascent to the uncomfortable position of D.C.’s reigning counterintuitive foreign policy Cassandra began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. As a junior professor at Princeton, Doran observed that the prevailing wisdom sought to explain the attacks in ways that didn’t strike him as either accurate or wise. “The big question after 9/11,” he said in a recent interview, “was why do they hate us? Did we provoke this, or do they hate us because we’re good people, and they’re bad people? I said, no, there’s this other thing going on in the Middle East.”
That other thing, of course, was the internal conflict tearing the Islamic world apart. Flying planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Doran theorized, wasn’t an act strategically directed against America, or as retribution for American crimes. Rather, it was an attempt to recruit more Muslims to the radical Islamist cause. Osama bin Laden’s calculation, Doran explained in a blockbuster article in Foreign Affairs, was that, if attacked, the United States will respond with might, which, in turn, would win bin Laden more followers, who would help him wage war against his foes within the Muslim world.
At the time, this innovative idea—which is now fairly commonplace—immediately won him the disdain of several of his fellow Middle East experts. But as Princeton was cooling off to his ideas, the White House was paying attention. In 2005 he left academia to serve in the Bush administration, first as the senior director for Near East and North African affairs at the National Security Council and then as a deputy assistant secretary of defense. He took the latter office in April of 2007. What he saw tempered some of his initial support for Bush’s war, while confirming some of his other beliefs about the region.
“The Iraq war is a hard one for me,” he said, “because I supported it, but it proved much harder than I expected. We didn’t win. We ended up empowering Iran, something I thought would never happen. I blame myself for not seeing that ahead of time. It also made me much more skittish about supporting military operations. When I was in DoD, every month in the Pentagon they had wounded warrior parades, when injured soldiers would wind their way through the building. It is a very sobering spectacle to behold. I would see all those lost limbs, wheelchairs, and scarred faces, and I would think of the soldiers who are not in the parade, because they lost their lives—I would see all of that pain and loss, and I would ask myself if I had known that one of them would have been me or one of my loved ones, would I have been so supportive of war? It did not make me a pacifist. I do think that war and deterrence are necessary parts of statecraft. But I think we should be very prudent about it, and I have tried to be more prudent since that time.”
A year and a half later, Obama was elected president, and Doran felt himself facing another career challenge, as an ex-Republican security official who would now be joining the think-tank class in D.C. Many in the foreign policy establishment, he said, even some who agreed with his views, still read the president as another in a long line of commanders in chief who fought on one side or the other of a well-established tradition of American diplomacy. But Doran, who is now a senior fellow at the center-right Hudson Institute, saw something else.
“I’ve sat in graduate seminars with guys like him,” he said of Obama, “and I know where he got his ideas about the world, and how the world works. If you talk to crazy right-wing people, they think that he’s a closet communist, or a closet Muslim or whatever,” he continued, with the kind of unexpected categorical leap that separates Doran from the herd-minds of the right and the left. “But the thing that makes him distinctive isn’t any of that. It’s that he’s got the worldview of an Ivy League professor. At the same time, he’s also a very good retail politician, and those two things usually don’t go together. Ivy League professors can’t win votes, but he can.”
Having himself spent some years in Ivy League seminar rooms, Doran is well acquainted with the worldview that has become his bete noire. “There’s a left-wing American elitist distrust of American power,” he said, “coupled with the assumption that, if we have major problems out there in the world, it’s because of us—and if we change the way we deal with these actors like Iran, China, or Russia, that will change the relationship with them. That’s actually what Obama said in his inauguration. But that’s not the way the world works.”
Obama’s general outlook struck Doran as otherworldly and combustible enough; his decision to engage Iran in negotiations, ostensibly aiming to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, struck him as outright dangerous. As the Iran deal became the Obama administration’s foreign policy flagship, Doran geared for battle, in a town where no one of either party was willing to countenance the possibility of igniting another big-ticket conflict in the Middle East. Where Doran expected an old-school foreign policy showdown, what he observed instead was something entirely different—and new.
“I was shocked to see the extent to which the press didn’t exist anymore,” he explained, with what sounds in the present almost like a kind of Midwestern naiveté. “The press has always been left wing, but it used to be an independent center of power, full of very, very talented, educated, and experienced people who knew a lot about how the world worked, and they had their own independent base of authority. There was a kind of independent audit of politics that was conducted by the newspapers, and by the intellectual world. That is gone. The internet destroyed it by destroying the economic basis for this independent sort of journalism.”
For Doran, the Iranian threat was the paramount U.S. security concern in the Middle East. Instead of meeting or at least honestly assessing that threat, D.C. policymakers and pundits wanted to deny it, departing into realms of geopolitical fantasy, nonsense and lying—and no one was holding them to account.
Then there was the question of Israel, or as Democrats increasingly defined it, Bibi’s Israel—which by insisting on the reality of the Iranian threat had made itself a domestic political problem, and even an enemy. Doran believed otherwise on that question, too. Even though Doran himself is a Catholic who was born in Indiana and largely raised in Southern California, he speaks fluent, barely accented Hebrew—the product of nearly four years in his youth living in Israel as the son of divorced parents who had fallen on tough economic times. Having spent most of his high school years unsupervised and unmoored from the traditional familial obligations had strengthened his propensity to go his own way, and going to Israel was part of that. His affection for Israel and its people was something entirely personal, and it fit naturally with his larger regional strategic outlook.
His experiences, Doran thought, had also given him some insight into the Jewish community. He hoped it would rise to the occasion and strongly oppose negotiating with and rewarding a regime committed to Holocaust denial and the destruction of the Jewish state; here, too, he was destined to find himself an outlier.
“I thought,” he said, “that there was a certain point at which the ‘never again’ education that my Jewish friends had received would kick in, and they would say, ‘No, this is just too far.’”
Instead, vast swaths of the American Jewish community, who were very different from Israelis, either supported the deal or tepidly opposed it.
In 2016, Doran published a policy prescription by way of elegant historical analysis titled Ike’s Gamble. His crisply written short book told the story of how Eisenhower courted Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, giving Israel the cold shoulder in order to prove that even the most hardened Muslim state would abandon its support of violence and come around to seeing the view from Washington, if the U.S. would only show a little more sensitivity toward local concerns.
Doran’s book was a primer in how not to conduct Middle East policy; it was also a thinly veiled catalog of many of the mistakes he believed the Obama administration was repeating. As Doran saw it, the goal of the Obama-ites was to realign the U.S. with Iran and away from its traditional allies, like Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—a policy that Obama himself had referred to as “balancing,” and which had already led to U.S. acquiescence, or worse, in the Iranian-backed Assadist genocide of Sunnis in Syria. Massacring the majority population of the Middle East in an alliance with a non-Arab, minority regime that had dedicated itself to attacking the United States and threatening to wipe out Israel with nuclear weapons seemed to Doran like the definition of strategic insanity, which had now become a guiding doctrine of US foreign policy. An analysis of events now six or seven decades removed gave its author plenty of opportunity to make salient points while remaining safely cloaked in a scholar’s robe. But watching the debate over the Iran deal thwarted by what he saw as bad faith and a decaying media, Doran grew more disenchanted—and more inclined to speak his mind. He didn’t have to wait long for his next opportunity.
Then came the election of Donald Trump.
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For D.C. policy circles, Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election was a horrifying, catastrophic “black swan” event, in response to which Doran’s peers rushed to preemptively declare the president beyond the pale—a tool of Vladimir Putin, an unhinged racist and maniac, a harbinger of American fascism, or all of the above. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that Trump had devoted himself during his campaign to castigating and threatening Republican Party elites as much as the Democrats, there was no shortage of D.C. Republicans like Freedom Agenda proponent Max Boot, who indignantly renounced their affiliation with the Republican Party and devoted themselves to opposing the president. While others didn’t go as far, they made sure to make their allegiances plain by publicly criticizing Trump and his policies at every juncture. Slowly but surely, Doran went the other way.
Russiagate, Doran asserted, in a long essay in the National Review, was bosh—and the people who were feverishly spreading conspiratorial memes about Trump gaming the election with the help of Putin had gone bonkers. Whatever his flaws, Doran argued, Trump had been elected legally, and the use of a conspiracy theory to try and remove him from office was dangerously undemocratic. In return, Doran found himself the target of fiery resentment, much of it coming from the conservative side. Responding in the National Review, for example, Jonah Goldberg accused Doran of being an Always Trumper and of subjecting any and all analysis to fit the depraved president’s insatiable ego and desperate electoral needs.
Doran’s attention was focused elsewhere. “Look at what they did in Russiagate,” he said. “They took a dossier, they shopped it to the press, they shopped it to the FBI and the intelligence agencies. The FBI validated the dossier, or aspects of the dossier to the press, and they created this whole storyline out of nothing, and a storyline that was patently ridiculous. That’s the whole thing. If you spend two seconds looking at it, it falls apart. We’re talking conspiracy theory territory here.”
Again, however, Doran was shocked to see how few, even on the Republican side, rushed to rebuke these absurd claims. “Everyone just shut up,” he said. “And I think all for different reasons. A lot of them didn’t like Trump and it was damaging to Trump, and so they just went along with it. People would come up to me and say, ‘Mike, I think you’re probably right, but have you considered that this investigation is probably going to dig up a lot of dirt on Donald Trump? And he’s going to go down. And what people are going to remember is not that you were right on the facts, but that you supported him, and they dug up all this dirt.’”
At first, this logic made Doran back off a bit. “I noticed that I was making life socially uncomfortable for myself,” he admits. But his timidity was short-lived—and the release of the Mueller Report would again prove him right, and the near-unanimous consensus of his foreign policy colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, wrong.
With this insight rekindled, Doran steeled himself for what was shaping to be his most ferocious foreign policy debate yet, the one involving Turkey. “The logic here is very simple and absolutely irrefutable,” he told me. “It goes as follows: The last two presidents have been elected on a platform of a light military footprint in the Middle East. No subsequent president, absent a national catastrophe on the scale of 9/11, is going to ask to send more troops abroad. That means we need allies who are going to help us build an order that protects our national interests. It means working with states, and we have to take into account how those states define their national interests.
“The problem with proxies,” Doran continued, in his professorial tone, “is that they have their own ideas of what they want. You can argue until you’re blue in the face and morally castigate them, but it’s not going to change their minds. In the Middle East, the choices aren’t wonderful. When you add them up, the problem is the rise of Iranian power, so you have to work with states to help you push back. And there really are only three states that can effectively do this: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.”
When asked to describe his approach to foreign policy, he insists it’s just good, old-fashioned realism.
“It’s foreign policy realism based on states and their interests,” he said. “It’s what realism would look like if the people who call themselves realists were actually true to the intellectual principles that they claim to espouse.”
Instead, he continued, too many of these people, under the sway of progressive politics, turned to moralism instead. “Progressivism,” he said, “is a modernist Protestant utopianism that believes in the perfectibility of mankind and believes the U.S. should be the vanguard bringing about the perfection of humanity. Trump revealed to us that much of the foreign policy elite on the right is simply the muscular wing of this progressivism. So traditional ideas going all the way back to Thucydides about how states should protect their interests are discarded, and a call for prudence is very easily depicted as a debased, immoral position.”
Of course, the Erdogan administration still leaves much to be desired. And of course, the Turks continue to support Hamas, just as the Saudis did, historically. All of this is unpleasant for Israel, Doran said, but none of this is new or more than it can handle, and none of this is better than the alternative. He takes a similarly measured approach to the question of Iran’s recent attacks on two of Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. “I don’t think that every attack by Iran necessarily needs to be answered directly and immediately,” he said. “The United States can afford to answer at a time and place, and in a manner, of its choosing. Having said that, there does need to be an answer, and that answer cannot be simply more economic sanctions, powerful though the sanctions weapon may be. The Abqaiq attacks point to a weakness in Trump’s anti-Iran strategy, namely, the absence of a ground game. Rhetorically, the administration is pursuing a rollback strategy, but it has yet to develop the tools achieve its stated aims.”
Such a task, he added, requires time and caution. “When you’re the greatest power on earth,” he said, “even the small decisions you make affect the lives and deaths of other people, and it can get dangerous when you start having fantasies about remaking the world instead of being prudent about how you use your power.”
That is very clearly what Doran believes. What is remarkable and frightening is that his insistence on such basic, level-headed strategic principles has left him nearly alone in a city whose elites, both Democratic and Republican, seem united in their refusal of any accountability for even their most glaring mistakes—like the Iraq War and the Iran deal—and have instead found common purpose in proclaiming their own crushing moral and intellectual superiority to Donald Trump. History has been kind to Doran on a number of big questions. Where it will fall on his latest move, and on Trump in general, remains to be seen.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.