- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2010

The last time His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet came to Washington, President Obama refused to meet with him, worried that he would anger China before a planned Beijing summit with President Hu Jintao.

But on Thursday, the president finally met with his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Only not in the Oval Office. And not in public. The brief meeting in the basement Map Room was “closed press,” and the White House barred still photographers from capturing the historic moment.

Despite his campaign pledge to provide unprecedented transparency into his administration, the president allowed only a White House photograph to be released - and that was posted on Flickr.com, not the White House’s official Web site.

The Associated Press quickly declined to distribute the handout photo.

“We do not distribute government handouts of events that we believe should be open to the press and therefore the public at large,” the Associated Press’ Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said, according to an AP report.

For Mr. Obama, hosting the Dalai Lama delivered another lesson on the vast difference between running for the White House and living in the White House. And in the end, he wound up following the footsteps of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Still, Mr. Obama learned his lessons well. To further distance himself from the meeting with the exiled Tibetan monk, the White House press secretary - not the president - was the one to release a statement summing up the sit-down. The obtusity of the language was striking.

“The president stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Not Tibetans in Tibet, of course, which was the administration’s way of subtly distancing itself from the Tibetan separatist movement.

“The president and the Dalai Lama,” Mr. Gibbs continued, “agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.” No mention of Tibetan autonomy, nor of Chinese civil rights violations there.

China and the United States are already sparring over trade issues, currencies, sanctions against Iran, the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Chinese Internet censorship. What’s more, angering the Chinese - who hold some $750 billion in U.S. Treasury bills - is particularly dangerous right now.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama was a bit more open, giving a brief statement on the White House driveway, where he playfully tossed snow at reporters. But his broken English made his description of the meeting nearly indecipherable.

“Even before he became president during the election, you see, he telephoned me and then after he became president, you see, he was also showing his genuine concern, and including his recent visit to Beijing, you see, he expressed, you see, his concern about Tibet and … global issue like that. So I express my thank to him,” the Dalai Lama said.

With that, the man born as Lhamo Dondrub (or Lhamo Thondup, but also known as Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso) swept up his burgundy and gold robes and strode away on his flip-flopped feet.

Thursday’s secretive meeting was no different from those held by past presidents stretching back to George H.W. Bush. Former President Bill Clinton perfected the methodology by briefly “dropping by” as the Dalai Lama met at the White House with Vice President Al Gore.

President George W. Bush held private meetings in the White House residence with the exiled Tibetan leader, although he irked the Chinese in 2007 when he traveled to the Capitol to join in the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, where he urged Chinese leaders to welcome the monk to Beijing.

China was immediately and predictably miffed by the White House’s maneuver. China’s Foreign Ministry said Mr. Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama “violated the U.S. government’s repeated acceptance that Tibet is a part of China and it does not support Tibetan independence,” the state news agency Xinhua reported.

But the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland to India in 1959 during a failed uprising eight years after Chinese troops took over Tibet, was buoyant after his presidential meeting, and promised to take questions from reporters following a sit-down with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Still, like his White House host, the Dalai Lama had learned to spurn full transparency and a lively give and take with journalists.

“Make some preparations, some questions, good questions. Don’t ask silly questions,” he said with a smile.

c Joseph Curl can be reached at [email protected] times.com.

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