The last time the Dalai Lama visited Washington, President George W. Bush presented the exiled Tibetan leader with the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony on Capitol Hill. Now the Dalai Lama cannot even get a private meeting with President Obama. The only winner in this rebuff is communist China.
This is the first time since 1991 that the Dalai Lama will visit our nation’s capital and not meet with the sitting president. The White House reportedly claims it means no disrespect to the Tibetan leader but is wary of creating controversy ahead of Mr. Obama’s summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao next month.
The Obama White House shows an inordinate - one might say obsessive - amount of concern for other countries’ sensitivities. The president and his team seem fixated on the notion that the Bush administration ruined America’s image in the world and it is the administration’s historic mission to repair it. This idea is so entrenched it became the basis for Mr. Obama’s shipwrecked bid to bring the Olympics to Chicago. That embarrassing failure should teach the president that nine months into his presidency, the anti-Bush line has grown stale. He’s not Mr. Bush. The world gets the point - and is yawning.
Mr. Obama actually could learn a thing or two from President Bush about U.S.-Sino diplomacy. The Bush administration skillfully managed the relationship with Beijing while not compromising U.S. support for the Tibetan people or for Taiwan. By comparison, Mr. Obama simply comes across as weak. Snubbing the Dalai Lama is a case in point. It would be a mark of principled leadership to welcome the Dalai Lama and publicly reaffirm the justice of his cause. America need not jettison its commitment to freedom just to curry favor with some foreign leaders.
We consistently have deplored communist China’s subjugation of Tibet, its suppression of Tibetan religion and culture, and the occasional shocking acts of brutality perpetrated by Beijing to keep Tibet under its heel. The Obama team reportedly is telling the Tibetans that it supports them too but wants to deliver substance, not symbolism. Yet Mr. Obama should understand that in this case, the lack of positive symbolism has a substance of its own. If the president will not support the Tibetan cause when it is easy to do, he cannot be counted on to make difficult choices when times are tough.
So far, every time Mr. Obama has a chance to stand for something on the world stage, he bows instead.