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President Obama meets with the Dalai Lama: less hoopla, please

February 21, 2010

President Obama met with the Dalai Lama Thursday.
But instead of in the Oval Office, the meeting
took place in the Map Room -- perhaps signaling a
slight downgrading of the US relationship with
the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
By Peter Grier, Staff writer
Christian Science Monitor
February 18, 2010

Washington -- The most important aspect of
President Obama’s Thursday meeting with the Dalai
Lama may be this: It took place in the Map Room.

The Map Room is perfectly fine. It’s got some
lovely Chippendale furniture, plus the last World
War II situation map prepared for President
Roosevelt. US chief executives often use it as an auxiliary parlor.

But it is not the Oval Office. By talking with
the Dalai Lama in this side chamber, Obama may be
downgrading the US relationship with the Tibetan spiritual leader. Just a bit.

After all, in 2007 President Bush met the Dalai
Lama in public in the Capitol Rotunda, and
personally presented him with the Congressional
Gold Medal. That infuriated China, which
considers the exiled monk a separatist leader.

For months, Beijing has been pushing the US to at
least make private any Obama -- Dalai Lama
meet-and-greet. That has been achieved, given the Map Room setting.

The question of location is "an obscure issue of
protocol that, as the White House knows, makes a
lot of difference to Beijing officials, but none
to American or Tibetan perceptions of the
meeting,” said Robert Barnett, director of the
Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia
University in New York, in a Council on Foreign Relations interview.

Following Thursday’s meeting, the White House
issued a statement affirming Obama’s "strong
support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique
religious, cultural and linguistic identity."

The Dalai Lama himself told reporters on the
White House driveway that he talked with the
president about the promotion of human values and
the concerns of the Tibetan people.

Obama was "very supportive," said the exiled Buddhist leader.

A string of US presidents have met with the Dalai
Lama. Prior to President Bush’s public embrace of
the Tibetan, President Clinton avoided a formal
visit, and instead dropped in on visits between
the Dalai Lama and other US officials.

Avoiding a meeting entirely thus would break with
precedent, and anger Congress and human rights
groups to the extent that it could hinder a
president’s flexibility on policies toward China,
according to Charles Freeman, a China expert at
the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Obama has already postponed the meeting once, as
he declined to see the Dalai Lama last year.

"Media has widely speculated that President Obama
did not want to meet the Dalai Lama before his
November 2009 trip to China, where he saw
President Hu Jintao," writes Freeman in an analysis of the get together.

The US needs Beijing’s cooperation on a wide
range of issues, from trade imbalances to the
attempt to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program.

But the administration may be beginning to
toughen its approach to China, according to
Freeman. The nascent recovery from near-meltdown
in US financial markets, plus charges from Google
and other firms that computers linked to China
are conducting wide-ranging cyber warfare, may
have combined to allow the US space in which to become more assertive.

"The meeting with the Dalai Lama, high profile
but largely symbolic, gives Washington a low-cost
opportunity to signal a more confident but still
measured approach," Freeman writes.
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