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Obama-Lama Meeting Mishandled

February 23, 2010

By Kelley Currie
Daily Caller
February 22, 2010

When President Obama failed to meet with the
Dalai Lama last fall before going to Beijing,
that non-meeting became shorthand for his
administration’s overly solicitous approach to
China’s sensitive spots—generating both praise
and criticism. With the U.S.-China relationship
hitting the skids in recent months, yesterday’s
meeting between President Obama and the Dalai
Lama became symbolic of the current tensions in
the U.S.-China relationship and a focal point for
speculation about whether the Obama
administration is taking a tougher line on China.

Unfortunately, the White House tried to be too
cute with the meeting -- playing "hide the Dalai
Lama" with the media and otherwise attempting to
downplay the significance of the meeting, none of
which blunted China’s outrage. With these
results, it is little wonder that the Obama
administration’s China policy is increasingly
viewed as both disconnected from American values,
and not very effective in protecting American
interests—a deadly combination. To change this
dynamic, President Obama should rethink his
approach and elevate issues of human rights and
democracy in China he has heretofore downplayed.
If President Obama were interested in pursuing a
more principled approach to China, Tibet would be
as good a place as any to start.

To begin with, President Obama should own his
relationship with the Dalai Lama. Stop with the
weasel words about meeting with the Dalai Lama in
his capacity as a revered religious leader and
international man of peace. These are certainly
apt descriptors for the Dalai Lama, but President
Obama did not meet him to compare Nobel Prize
medals or receive a teaching on the Buddha
Dharma. U.S. officials should acknowledge up
front that the explicit purpose of such meetings
is to talk with the legitimate representative of
the Tibetan people about political issues effecting Tibet.

The president should also treat this like the
serious political meeting that it is by holding
it in the place where he holds the rest of his
"work” meetings—the Oval Office. He should be
seen in public, or at least by the White House
press corps, physically standing with the Dalai
Lama. (And next time, make sure someone moves the
pile of garbage bags before you send him out the
back door.) Likewise, Secretary Clinton should
welcome him with the same well-worn red carpet
that greets every other dignitary arriving at the
front doors of Foggy Bottom, rather than sneaking
him in through the basement. While optics are
less important than the substance of meetings,
there is the matter of dignity and
appropriateness. Moreover, protocol matters to
the Chinese government, to the Tibetan people,
and to other countries deciding whether and how
their top officials receive the Dalai Lama.

The protocol and atmospherics for these meetings
also matter because treating the Dalai Lama with
less than full diplomatic courtesies and using
obfuscating language to describe these encounters
undermines U.S. policy. The Tibetan Policy Act of
2002—the legal basis for U.S. policy on
Tibet—requires that “the President and the
Secretary should encourage the Government of the
People’s Republic of China to enter into a
dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his
representatives leading to a negotiated agreement
on Tibet.” If the United States doesn’t in all
respects treat the Dalai Lama as the Tibetans’
political leader, it seems pretty unreasonable to
then turn around and ask the Chinese to consider
him their partner for substantive negotiations on
the future of Tibet. Beyond reeking with
hypocrisy, such behavior also validates Chinese
criticisms that the U.S. is only using Tibet and
other sensitive issues as political tools to “contain” or “humiliate” China.

There should also be a moratorium on moral
equivalence in talking about the situation in
Tibet and Sino-Tibetan talks. When the president
of the United States calls for dialogue “to
resolve any concerns and differences the two
sides may have”, it sounds like he is talking
about a disputed soccer match rather than the
occupation and brutalization of Tibet. Such
“evenhandedness” lets the Chinese side off the
hook and pressurizes the Dalai Lama in a way that
is not conducive to a positive outcome. Today’s
White House statement supporting the
“preservation of Tibet’s unique religious,
cultural and linguistic identity and the
protection of human rights for Tibetans” is an
improvement, but is conspicuously silent on the
locus of the threats to Tibetan identity or human rights.

Finally, there should be a more comprehensive and
sustained effort to work with European and other
allies-- including India --on greater
harmonization of policy, or at least messaging on
Tibet. This was something that the Bush
Administration made substantial progress on under
the leadership of its Special Coordinator for
Tibetan Issues Paula Dobriansky (disclosure: she
is my former boss), and which the current administration has largely abandoned.

To be effective, these and other steps must be
taken as part of a broader shift that recognizes
the inherent constraints on a relationship
between two countries with such divergent
political systems, sources of legitimacy and
world-views. This would go a long way toward
demonstrating to both the American people and
Beijing that this administration understands the
U.S.-China relationship cannot move past the
transactional state while the Chinese regime
maintains its present authoritarian posture, including on Tibet.

Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project
2049 Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think
tank, and served as a State Department official
during the George W. Bush administration.
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