President Obama To Meet Dalai Lama, Test Limits Of Symbolism

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At 11:15 this morning, two Nobel Peace Prize winners will meet privately in a room that is best known as the place where President Franklin Roosevelt planned World War II. This fact likely has little symbolic value, but given that the event in question–a long-awaited, once-delayed meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama–is all about symbolism, no potential sign of meaning should go unmentioned.

There are, after all, few questions of substance on the table. Obama has firmly established a policy towards China that puts economic and other national security concerns above the nation’s human rights record. Under this formulation, Obama speaks delicately about his concerns over China’s behavior in Tibet, the nation that the Dalai Lama fled in 1959, after a failed uprising against Chinese authorities. Obama stated his position on Tibet in a joint press event last November with Chinese Presisdent Hu Jintao in Beijing. Said Obama,

We did note that while we recognize that Tibet is part of the people’s Republic of China, the United States supports the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolved any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.

These were not exactly fighting words–the first part is a notable concession of Chinese authority–and they came after the White House had made the public move of delaying a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after Obama’s first official China visit. On Wednesday, in the Briefing Room, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was careful not to ruffle any more diplomatic feathers over the visit.

QUESTION: Dalai Lama is also meeting with Secretary Clinton, as I understand. The White House has said that the — that the president is meeting with the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader. What does it say to have the secretary of state also meeting with him?

GIBBS: I — I will direct you to the Department of State to answer that question.

QUESTION: So, but the White House didn’t have any consultations on who — who in the administration would be meeting with (inaudible)?

GIBBS: I’d point you to the Department of State on that. . . .

QUESTION: The president is ready to meet the Dalai Lama, and let’s say, if he asks for freedom or independence or more autonomy for his people?

GIBBS: We will — we will give you guys a readout for what they talk about tomorrow.

A photo will be released of the White House meeting, though there will be no direct press coverage. This fits with the pattern of these meetings, which was broken in 2007, when President Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama.

The diplomatic tiptoeing comes at a fragile point in U.S. relations with China. In the coming weeks, China will likely be forced to decide whether or not to support more sanctions against Iran on the U.N. Security Council. The Obama Administration has been working for months to lay the groundwork for Chinese support of further isolating Iran.

If news is to be made today, it will likely come after the Dalai Lama emerges from his meeting with the president. In the past, the Tibetan leader has walked to the microphones to address reporters. Here is the scene from 2003.

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