In Praise of “Ferocious Arguments” — And of Colleagues Like Michael Doran

At a recent conference on contemporary Iranian politics, the discussion on the fate of the nuclear negotiations and the prospects for Hassan Rouhani’s presidency ended in a paroxysm of unanimity. The small group of assembled experts congratulated one another on the conformity of their views and frowned at any hint of a departure from the received wisdom. Proponents of the opposing point of view were not invited, and if they had been, they would have been met with scorn and bewilderment.

Conversations like this take place every day, at universities and think tanks, on Capitol Hill and in the government, among academics, lobbyists, advocates and policymakers. Issues of Middle East policy remain the subject of intense debate in Washington and around the world, and yet too often there is very little actual dialogue in those debates.

The problem is compounded by the growing reliance on social media, with its built-in confirmation bias. Using tools such as Facebook and Twitter, self-selected communities of interest circulate only the information that adheres to their established narrative. Perspectives are quickly validated by the tap of a keyboard or touchscreen, and the applause of likes and retweets makes it tempting to disregard any challenges, particularly since they tend to come from anonymous and deliberately uncivil commentators.

The end result of these trends for the shaping of America’s response to the ongoing and urgent challenges of the Middle East is the oversimplification of complex realities and an intensification of partisanship in policymaking. And it belies the very basis of our society and our political system, which was founded through “ferocious arguments,” as the writer Leon Wieseltier argues in a brilliant essay commemorating the 100th anniversary of The New Republic.

“Since all the views do not go together, and since the stakes in the validity of the respective views are very high, a free people should be a quarrelsome people. The quarrels of an open society are evidence of extraordinary philosophical and political development. They are the proof of our progress. The quarrels are not the problem, they are the solution.

Are our fights nasty? Not as nasty as their absence would be.”

The fiercest intellectual battles I have engaged in during my time at Brookings have come courtesy of one particular colleague, Michael Doran — @doranimated, as he is known to his 11,000 Twitter followers. Mike has emerged as one of the most articulate critics of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran, and has expressed stinging skepticism about the nuclear negotiations and the nature of the Iranian system.

These views happen to be almost 180 degrees different than my own. But Mike’s deep grounding in the history and politics of the Middle East has forced me to question my own assumptions and think more carefully about my own analysis. His acerbic wit and his generous spirit have elevated all our ferocious arguments and have made him a valued colleague to all who have worked with him.

Amidst Washington’s bitter partisanship, there are few places in Washington where views as divergent as those that Mike and I have advanced could coexist. More than that, these disagreements are celebrated here, as anyone who happened to be present for a raucous, hard-hitting debate on Syria policy between Mike and Foreign Policy Fellow Jeremy Shapiro can attest.

Mike is equally comfortable with high-minded scholarship — his latest book considers Eisenhower’s approach to the Middle East — as he is with mass media. When some (myself included) responded to the Hassan Rouhani’s June 2013 election with ambitious forecasts for change in Iran, Mike punctured the hyperbole with four words on Twitter — Rouhani Will Fix It!, a gentle jab that has proven more prescient than many might like to acknowledge. His persistent, eloquent appeals for American leadership to staunch the horrific violence in Syria have made him a moral authority on that issue.

Today is Mike’s last day as an official part of the Middle East Center at Brookings, but those of us who have had the privilege to have worked with him here will continue to follow his work closely and look forward to future opportunities to engage in spirited debates.

Here are a few of his most memorable blog posts and appearances on the Brookings stage. Whatever your views on the issues, I encourage you to read and listen to Mike, consider his arguments, and appreciate his readiness to contest ideas.