As His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrives in town today, I pose a question:
Is tomorrow’s meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Obama getting greater attention than it would have had it been held last October?
I think, indisputably, YES, even without the benefit of a time machine to test the hypothesis.
Jump back to last summer/fall. We knew two things: (1) the Dalai Lama was scheduled to come to Washington, D.C., in October 2009 (a date set the previous year due to his scheduled participation in conferences), and (2) the Dalai Lama had met with the U.S. President during every one of his visits to D.C. since 1991.
At that time, our expectation of an October Obama-Dalai Lama meeting fell into the parameters of the routine. I say that not to diminish its importance — as Obama’s first meeting with him as president, or to His Holiness’ efforts and the Tibetan cause. But as one China scholar noted in a National Public Radio interview this morning, such meetings have taken on a “pre-scripted element,” including the predictable expression of outrage from Beijing.
Fast forward four months.
The Washington Post previewed tomorrow’s meeting with a prominent story on page A4, with photo (as did NPR). An AP story helped put the Dalai Lama on Yahoo’s “Trending Now” list. ICT has fielded press inquiries from Japan, Germany, the UK, Spain, France, and beyond, in addition to domestic media outlets (in English and Spanish). The White House’s announcement of the meeting date, normally a banal affair, made the news scroll on CNN and was covered widely.
Simply put, coverage of tomorrow’s Obama-Dalai Lama meeting has moved way beyond the routine.
Much of the credit for this goes to the Chinese, of course. Their boilerplate, antagonistic rhetoric toward the Dalai Lama has reached new heights of stridency and aggressiveness, even lodging threats against Obama and other world leaders who meet with him. If, by elevating Tibet to a “core issue,” China’s strategy is to force the international community and media to forget about Tibet, it is having the opposite affect.
And one has to wonder whether there is any second-guessing inside the Administration. The public’s speculation on the White House’s reasoning for the no-meeting in October has resulted in a brighter spotlight on tomorrow’s meeting than we would have seen four months ago. A White House meeting, which would have been one part of the Dalai Lama’s DC itinerary last October, is now the only reason for his visit to Washington.
The White House placed a Dalai Lama meeting within the calculus of their overall approach to China (wanting it to occur after the President’s visit to China), so it is natural that the press, the American public and the international community assesses the February 18 meeting through the same lens. And on that count, after Copenhagen, the Taiwan arms sale, and developments (or lack thereof) on Iran, Korea and currency, a Dalai Lama meeting likely has a different feel inside the White House than it did last year.
With this increased attention comes opportunity. For the Dalai Lama, it is a chance to re-connect with Barack Obama (they met in 2005) and engage with a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner on creative approaches that can help remove obstacles toward a negotiated solution for Tibet. For President Obama and his Administration, it is an opportunity to close the gap between his eloquent rhetoric about the universality of human rights and the implementation of policies to advance those ideals, which many in the human rights community have found less than robust.
For Tibetans and Tibet supporters, it is the opportunity to reflect that even in the midst of all the global, regional and local problems that compete for the international community’s attention, the moral cause that is Tibet, under the leadership of His Holiness, can still draw a crowd.
Photo: A November 2005 meeting between then-Senator Barack Obama and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.