The Wrong Dog

Debate-o-matic: Why didn’t the president adopt a mutt?

To help you keep up with the debates in and about Washington, Slate offers this guide to the news of the week. Here are a few arguments on some key issues.

Release of Torture Memos

Obama struck the right balance. There was considerable opposition in the intelligence community to releasing the memos, and by releasing them, President Obama kept his promise to err on the side of transparency. By stating clearly that the techniques described were abhorrent, Obama made his bid to reassert America’s moral standing. At the same time, by promising to shield from prosecution CIA operatives who relied on the legal advice, he gave current agents confidence that they can do their jobs without always having to worry whether what they’re being told might someday become inoperative and put them in legal jeopardy.

It was torture, but no one gets blamed? Obama specifically mentioned protecting those who carried out the orders, but he’s often expressed distaste for going after anyone involved. As Dahlia Lithwick puts it so well, when there are no consequences for breaking the law, the “temptation to keep breaking the law is irresistible.” While the president may not want to create a precedent that will make it hard for intelligence officers to do their jobs, his decision may have created a precedent that makes it all too easy for them to step over the line. As Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional law, puts it: “If legal advice can protect torturers, no official anywhere can ever be prosecuted. Legal advice then becomes a get out-of-jail free card and will be employed by every petty dictatorship to protect its abusers.”

Obama blew it. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey believe that Obama has started a chain of events that will lead to another 9/11: “[The] effect will be to invite the kind of institutional timidity and fear of recrimination that weakened intelligence gathering in the past, and that we came sorely to regret on Sept. 11, 2001.”

A New Cuba Policy

Good idea: President Obama’s Cuba policy, like much of his policymaking, is a pragmatic recognition of the facts. After 47 years, America’s Cuba policy has not brought democracy to Cuba. There is bipartisan agreement on its ineffectiveness, as articulated most thoroughly recently by Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee. The policy has not only hurt the Cuban people by denying them access to their families and their money, but it has been used by the Cuban government to keep the population oppressed. Money from Cuban-Americans gives Cubans more freedom, and allowing telecommunications companies to operate exposes Cubans to broader ideas. Plus, the president is not rolling back all the restrictions on contact with Cuba—just a small number as a test of Cuban intentions.

Bad idea: Obama is putting money into the hands of the dictator in Havana. The administration may say it’s a test, but the State Department has started a thorough review of Cuba policy, which sounds like a precursor to further diplomatic engagement to me. This isn’t just about Cuba. The president is sending a signal that he can be pressured by Latin American countries to change policy.

It’s not enough: Obama is doing little more than dropping a few extra restrictions imposed by George W. Bush, leaving the basic embargo encased in rock, like the fossil it is. As Steve Chapman points out, the policy makes no sense. If allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba will weaken Castro’s regime, why not allow all Americans to go there and spread American ideals?

Bo the Dog

Obama broke his pledge. The president promised that he would adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue center, a promise that made him the symbol of humane treatment in a book on dog adoption. And this wasn’t just a recent pledge—he’s been talking about it for years. But Bo, the Obamas’ new Portuguese water dog, is a purebred. The president’s donation to the D.C. Humane Society hardly makes up for the broken promise.

Obama didn’t break anything. Obama said he would try to get a shelter dog but that he also had to take into consideration his daughter Malia’s allergies. Getting her a dog she couldn’t play with would have been dumb.

Give him a treat and move on. OK, everybody: That was a nice break from debates about a depressed economy, the continuing threat of terrorism, and the possibility of war crimes committed by U.S. officials. But sometimes a dog is just a dog.