An Eye for Terror Sites

Michael Doran, an expert on Muslim extremism, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Michael Doran, an expert on Muslim extremism, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005

Michael S. Doran may have been destined to work for a Republican administration. During the 1972 presidential campaign, his father ran him around Carmel, Ind., to rip down posters of Democratic candidate George McGovern. His father was a Republican precinct committeeman.

"That was fun for a 10-year-old," Doran recalled recently.

But Doran ended up at the National Security Council staff in charge of the Middle East because of his unusual specialty: He is a 21st century scholar -- an aficionado of Muslim extremist Web sites.

At Princeton, Doran was on the Web as early as 5 a.m. to track the latest commentaries, manifestoes or fatwas from militant groups. His work soon put him on the map.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda, Doran wrote a defining piece in Foreign Affairs magazine -- "Somebody Else's Civil War" -- that Middle East experts still cite.

Osama Bin Laden had "no intention of defeating America," Doran wrote. "War with the United States was not a goal in and of itself but rather an instrument designed to help his brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish among the believers."

Al Qaeda wanted Washington to dispatch U.S. troops to the Islamic world, so Muslims would turn on governments allied with the United States -- and provoke their collapse, Doran explained. "Americans, in short, have been drawn into somebody else's civil war."

That argument is at the heart of U.S. policy in the Islamic world, which has shifted from President Bush's first-term focus on fighting terrorism to the second's emphasis on democracy as the salve to extremism.

"Mike is one of the most interesting folks in the field. He's astonishingly creative and independent," said Gideon Rose, Foreign Affairs' managing editor. "He understands radical Islamists the way they understand themselves."

He was also a natural fit for the Bush administration. Doran got the job in August in part because of his "extremely interesting articles," said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, adding that Doran's comments on U.S. policy were "thoughtful and useful."

Doran's views are not without controversy -- nor is he afraid to spark debate. In an interview, he described Middle East studies on American campuses as "stultifying, homogenous and conformist." The field has "gone into a dead end. It's highly politicized and dominated by one point of view," reflecting the pro-Arab "orientalism" of the late Palestinian-born Columbia University scholar Edward W. Said.

Yet experts who differ with Doran praise his scholarship.

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