Dalai Drama

Tibet sometimes seems like a case study in the futility of peaceful resistance. It has been occupied by the Chinese since 1949, two years after the creation of Israel led to the dispossession of the Palestinians. Unlike the Palestinians, the Tibetans have rarely resorted to violence or made common cause with terrorists of the far right or far left. Instead the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in exile in Dharamsala, India, embraced liberal democracy and fused modernity with religion in a way that's both inspiring and unprecedented. The Tibetans did everything in exact accordance with Western liberal values, and so far it has gotten them very little.

Installed as an absolute theocratic ruler, the Dalai Lama used his power to reduce his power. He prevailed on exiled Tibetans to adopt a constitution that allows for his own impeachment. He pushed for the democratic election of an exile parliament, cabinet, and prime minister, trying, with intermittent success, to create a separation of monastery and state within his community. His liberalism extends to an embrace of science -- indeed, no other religious figure on earth has done so much to reconcile faith and rationality, ancient insights and modern knowledge. As he wrote in a 2005 New York Times op-ed, "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."

The Dalai Lama's lifelong struggle for Tibetan autonomy is crucial, first and foremost, for 6 million Tibetans suffering under increasingly draconian Chinese rule. But extinguishing Tibetan hopes would also be a blow to the cause of democracy and nonviolence more generally. The Tibetan cause has moral implications for the whole world.

So, at first glance, the fact that Obama won't be meeting with the Dalai Lama when the latter is in Washington this month seems like a betrayal. The question, as it often is with Obama, is whether the president is playing a very subtle, long game to achieve his ideals, or abandoning those ideals altogether out of weak-kneed realism.

Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that the White House was postponing Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama until after the president's November summit with Chinese leader Hu Jintao. According to the Post, this will mark the first time since 1991 that the Dalai Lama will visit the capital without seeing the American president. The story suggested that the administration is trying to improve relations with China in part by "soft-pedaling criticism of China's human rights and financial policies." Realpolitik, it appeared, had trumped humanitarianism. Tibetan interests had been sacrificed to Chinese power.

Or had they? Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, president of Tibet House U.S., and a close friend and disciple of the Dalai Lama, insists that Tibetans and their supporters have no cause to feel let down. "There's even talk in some circles that His Holiness may have encouraged Obama" to postpone the meeting, Thurman says. Bush met with the Dalai Lama repeatedly, but his embrace ultimately did nothing to help the Tibetan cause, Thurman argues. "We want someone to be intelligent in [his] support," he says. Obama is "trying to be a little strategic here." By putting off his meeting with the Dalai Lama, Thurman says, Obama can talk to the Chinese "without giving them an excuse to huff and puff" -- and maybe advance Tibetan issues in the process.

Conservatives, obviously, don't see it this way. "It's becoming clear that Mr. Obama's definition of 'engagement' leaves plenty of room to meet with dictators, but less for the men and women who challenge them," opined The Wall Street Journal. Agence-France Presse quoted Republican Congressman Frank Wolf saying, "What would a Buddhist monk or Buddhist nun in [China's] Drapchi prison think when he heard that President Obama, the president of the United States, is not going to meet with the Dalai Lama?"

He has a point. The symbolism of this missed meeting is terrible, and in international affairs, symbolism can be a form of policy. After all, the only real political currency Tibet has lies in the moral authority and international stature of the Dalai Lama. Years ago, I worked as a volunteer English teacher at a school for Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, and I later spent a month traveling in Tibet. I was always struck by how proud Tibetans are of the Dalai Lama's global standing. Particularly for the refugees, it was a source of sustaining hope. Beyond that, the Dalai Lama's status as a global icon has helped keep international attention focused on Tibet and has ensured relatively generous support for Tibetans in exile.

China has tried hard to reduce the Dalai Lama in the eyes of the world. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with him last year, China responded by calling off a major European Union summit. In March, China pressured South Africa into denying the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a peace conference, leading Archbishop Desmond Tutu to pull out as well. The impression that the United States caved to China could make it that much harder for smaller countries to embrace the Tibetan leader.

Yet Thurman insists it's much too early to accuse the administration of selling out the Tibetans. In September, after all, Obama sent a delegation, led by his close adviser Valerie Jarrett, to meet with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. With Jarrett was State Department Under Secretary Maria Otero, who was recently made special coordinator for Tibetan issues. It was unprecedented, Thurman says, for such high-level officials to go to Dharamsala. Meanwhile, Obama has said he will meet with the Dalai Lama after he meets with the Chinese. "I think Obama is a great person, and I think he's trying to be successful in addition to being principled," Thurman says.

Thurman isn't sorry to see outrage on the Dalai Lama's behalf. "It might keep the pressure up," he says. "There may be people in the Treasury Department who would be very happy not to talk at all to the Dalai Lama. They're scared of the Chinese dumping treasury bills. It's always been the case since the British first went into Tibet in 1904; Western people who have business hopes with China have always given Tibet the short end of the stick."

But he doesn't think that's what Obama is up to. Fundamentally, he believes the administration is being savvy, not cynical. "We need the Chinese leadership to short-circuit their own Dick Cheneys," he says, which means working to tamp down bluster and needless antagonism. Some might think that attempting good-faith negotiations with China is "like offering an olive branch to John Boehner or Rush Limbaugh, but our president likes to try that," Thurman says. "Which in a way is the Dalai Lama's own approach -- not to make enemies unnecessarily."