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.
"Mike's politics on the Middle East are pure neo-con," said the University of Vermont's F. Gregory Gause III. "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."
Gause said he used to urge Doran to log off his computer and take his wife to dinner, in part because the Islamic Web sites represent a "very small slice of the debate. It's among the privileged -- the ones on the Internet." But, Gause added, "Mike wrote the best piece after 9/11."
Reports that Princeton had deferred tenure, in part because of an offer on another campus, sparked an outpouring on student blogs last March. "He leans to the . . . gasp . . . right? No tenure for you," one blogger wrote. "It's amazing he's lasted this long," another wrote.
Doran never expected to play the role of new thinker or iconoclast. "Water polo was my life until college," he said. An All-America in high school, he played for Stanford as a freshman. He had no interest in the Middle East -- and had never been abroad -- until a professor suggested the region might interest him.
Doran, an Irish Catholic from Middle America whose parents did not go to college, ended up in Israel for three years, learning Hebrew and enough Arabic to get by. "The Middle East was just a totally different universe," Doran recalled. He came away thinking he wanted to specialize in the 500-year Ottoman rule of the region -- until he translated a key concept incorrectly for a major paper.
"A good rule in the Middle East is that you should work on periods after the advent of the typewriter," he reflected. "Looking at Ottoman manuscripts, you have to be philologically talented."
The 1991 Persian Gulf War shifted Doran's focus to current Middle East events. He wrote his thesis on modern Egypt.
After graduate work at Princeton, Doran taught at the University of Central Florida, then returned to Princeton. "He was a brilliant teacher, which is an understatement," said Avrom Udovitch, who was Doran's professor and then a colleague. "He had a cult of followers." Udovitch was also impressed that between Doran's early morning obsession with Islamic Web sites and his heavy teaching schedule, he ironed his own shirts every day. "He has very traditional personal habits," Udovitch said.
Former student Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky said Doran made an impression on him at Princeton, when four or five male streakers ran into Doran's class as a prank. Doran coolly shut the door so the streakers couldn't leave without asking. "He took command of the situation," Ramos-Mrosovsky said.
His politics, Princeton affiliation and scholarship have led colleagues and students to call Doran a "young Bernard Lewis," a leading scholar whose work -- including "The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror" and "What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East" -- influenced the administration's response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It's flattering, although I'm not sure why," Lewis said, adding that Doran's scholarship on Islamic Web sites is "important and original." Lewis, who has emeritus status at Princeton, noted that Doran's lectures were so popular they had to be moved every year to larger lecture halls.
Doran now works out of a barren office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. He deals with topics including Iran's disputed nuclear program, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria's ties to terrorists and reform in the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdoms.
Now that he's in government, Doran finds he no longer has the time to fully explore the intelligence that he longed for as an academic. In one recent 24-hour period, he had 2,714 items in his intelligence folder. He described himself as a kid in a candy shop -- who can't eat all the free candy.