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

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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Dalai Lama speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, following a meeting with President Barack Obama.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Tsewang Lhamo, of New York, center, holds a photo of President Barack Obama with the Dalai Lama during a rally of Tibetans in support of the Dalai Lama's meeting with President Obama, Thursday, in Lafayette Park across from White House in Washington.
Ann Heisenfelt/AP
President Barack Obama waves prior to boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday.

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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