Opinion

Obama-Dalai Lama meeting mishandled

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Kelley Currie
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      Kelley Currie

      Kelley Currie is a Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, working on issues related to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific region. Prior to joining Project 2049, Ms. Currie was a Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs and Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the U.S. Department of State. She has also served as senior advisor to the International Committee of the Red Cross; director of government relations for the International Campaign for Tibet; and deputy director for Asia at the International Republican Institute. From 1995-1999, Ms. Currie was foreign policy advisor to Congressman John Porter (R-IL), and concurrently served as the majority staff director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Ms. Currie received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Georgia.

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, last week’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 affecting 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.

  • Pingback: Now That Obama’s President, Richard Gere Silent on Tibet « A Moral Outrage

  • rainmaker1145

    This is how the enlightened ones handle international relations. This is the better way forward, a new beginning for our relations on the international stage.

    Yet one more Obama b.s. promise that took no time at all to break.

    How’s that hopey-changy thing working for ya’ now? Audacious to be sure.

  • ontap

    Who bowed first?

  • lamecherry

    Mishandled is a term for feeding meat to a vegetarian leader. Bungled is a term for calling a leader Dolly Llama.
    A catastrophe is making a barefoot leader of Tibet walk through piles of snow and piles of garbage as he is shown out the back door.

    Mr. Obama slapped the Tibetan leader and people of Tibet as if he hit him across the face and infuriated China even more.

    This was not mishandled. This was a diplomatic meltdown of Obama historic proportions.