President Biden needs a ‘Devil’s Advocate’
Most of President Biden’s top-level appointees have been quickly confirmed by the Senate. It is clear that all will be loyal team players. But the president also needs the opposite.
Sometimes foreign policies go wrong because of “group think,” as likely happened in the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961. At other moments, wishful thinking or mirror-imaging adversaries – what some have called “strategic narcissism” – yields disasters. We saw this when the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq assuming that regime change would be much easier than it turned out to be; we saw it when the Obama administration largely disengaged from Iraq in 2011, assuming that the fight against jihadist terrorists there would end when the United States withdrew its forces. And sometimes presidents blunder because they and those around them become caught in cognition traps — rigid mindsets that cloud their view.
One technique that governments employ to avoid these pitfalls is “The Red Team,” a task force of experts charged with thinking like their enemies. And while red teams can often be effective, they suffer from at least one drawback: Teams, even red teams, can breed group think, strategic narcissism or cognition traps, simply by their inherent need to cooperate with one another and be influenced by each other’s views.
To help avoid these pitfalls, presidents need the lone critic.
President Biden should recruit a devil’s advocate, someone whose sole job is to expose the assumptions on which every policy is based. This official would, by design, have no authority at all. He or she would be outside of all organizational flow charts and answer only to the president. They would have no budget to protect and no turf to defend. Nor would they encroach on others’ domains. They would be free to challenge all points of view and required to challenge every policy position of consequence. They would be extremely unpopular.
The Devil’s Advocate would need to be neither an ideologue nor an egotist. They would have no deep ties to the president or his party, or to any party; to be wedded to an ideology is another common source of blunders. And this person must have no desire to advance their career in government. Operating outside of any organization, they could have no upward mobility. Once they had served their time, they would return to their former job or settle into retirement. In fact, a retiree, a kind of wizened village elder, could be appropriate. But wisdom does not always come with age: The so-called wise men whom Lyndon Johnson tapped for guidance on Vietnam had a mixed record; most backed his escalation of the war, then completely reversed course following the Tet Offensive in 1968. Age and experience were not enough.
The Devil’s Advocate must work alone, not be beholden to any particular agency, foreign policy or defense establishments. The president should be his or her only client. A president’s national security adviser is meant to fill that role, but the NSA’s job is to present the president with the best advice and multiple options for overcoming challenges and taking advantage of opportunities. The Devil’s Advocate would complement that effort through a critique of those options, as well as identification of viable alternatives that were not considered.
Naturally, the Devil’s Advocate, or DA, would need expertise, but their knowledge base must be broad. They would be wide-view foxes, not narrow-niche hedgehogs, as Isaiah Berlin framed it in his essay on political judgment. There should be one for foreign policy and another for domestic affairs. The two would work independently of each other, never in tandem.
So, what exactly would this Devil’s Advocate do? In foreign affairs, for example, whenever the principals of the president’s national security team debated a course of action, the DA would prepare a critique of each principal’s perspective, including, and especially, the president’s. They would produce a brief memo spotlighting the underlying assumptions behind every argument. The DA would be, in essence, the president’s critical thinker.
Before the president made a final decision on any major policy initiative or action, he would receive the DA’s assessment of all arguments, pro and con. These memos would reveal logical fallacies, implicit assumptions, unfounded assertions and shaky conclusions on all sides of an issue. That stark, unvarnished and as-unbiased-as-possible presentation would help the president rethink any actions before committing to them. It would offer clarity, unmarred by narrow organizational or ideological interests — at least, that would be the goal. No one is free of biases or capable of flawless logical reasoning. But genuine critical thinkers try hard to acknowledge their biases and account for them in their analysis.
The Devil’s Advocate would need, above all, integrity and humility. He or she must know enough to understand that no one person possesses deep knowledge of the range of challenges that the United States faces in the areas of foreign policy and national security. That is why the DA also must be free to consult with subject matter experts across the government, academia and the private sector.
Can people with the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities be found — people who are not caught up in partisan politics, who have reputations for fairness and prudence? The best candidates might be found outside the orbit of Washington experts. The search might begin among outsiders who are committed to the national interest and the common good, who also possess the integrity and humility necessary to serve the president, the Constitution and his or her fellow citizens.
Appointing an official Devil’s Advocate would be a remarkably low-cost addition to the Biden team. If the appointment flopped, little would be lost. If it succeeded, it might save the president from egregious errors. It might even prevent lives from being lost. With such a small downside and an incalculable upside, shouldn’t the search for a Devil’s Advocate begin at once?
H.R. McMaster is a former U.S. national security adviser, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general. His most recent book is “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World” (2020).
Zachary Shore is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies and a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of “Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions” (2016).
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Naval Postgraduate School or any other governmental entity.