FPI Bulletin: Mr. President, Meet with the Dalai Lama

July 15, 2011

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From FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork

Although the Dalai Lama has been in Washington for nine days, President Obama has not yet met the Tibetan leader or top officials of the Tibetan democratic exile government traveling with him.<--break- />

President Obama snubbed the Dalai Lama once before, refusing to see him in 2009; and Obama’s treatment of him in their 2010 meeting was roundly criticized.  Now the White House appears to be preparing the way for another snub.  The president can’t claim he’s too busy with the debt ceiling negotiations, as Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also deeply engaged in those talks, found time to welcome the Dalai Lama to Capitol Hill. 

If President Obama does fail to meet the Dalai Lama, he will set U.S. policy toward Tibet back 20 years to before 1991 when George H.W. Bush began the tradition of presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama on his Washington visits.  After that, U.S. support for Tibet steadily increased.  President Bill Clinton famously challenged CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin to meet the Dalai Lama and created a senior position on Tibet at the State Department.  Among other demonstrations of support, President George W. Bush was the first president to appear in public with the Dalai Lama when he attended the awarded the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in 2007. 
Tibetans rely on the U.S. as their greatest defender.  Reducing American support – and respect for the Dalai Lama – will give other countries cover to shut him out.  In fact, this is already happening.   Beijing will draw the obvious conclusion and feel freer to repress Tibetans and stall the already unproductive “dialogue” it conducts with representatives of the Dalai Lama.
The U.S. also suffers by capitulating to Chinese pressure over Tibet.  Concessions of principle are much more difficult than other kinds to recover from.  Fortunately, the worst damage done by shoddy treatment of the Dalai Lama can still be ameliorated by a gracious, if last minute invitation to the Oval Office.  Either way, President Obama should not feel that once the Dalai Lama leaves Washington, the issue goes away with him. 
The Dalai Lama recently accomplished his ambition to completely devolve his political and administrative power to the Tibetan exile government which claims to represent both the Tibetan diaspora and the interests of Tibetans under Chinese communist rule.  This presents a new challenge to the U.S.  If President Obama will not step up to it, the U.S. Congress should by revising the Tibet Policy Act to establish a strong relationship with the democratic exile government.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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