The first year of the Obama presidency has been long on appeasement and apologies and very short on principled foreign-policy stands. This hasn’t done either Obama or the country any good, but the president now has the opportunity to change course with respect to one casualty to his previous genuflections: by finally meeting with the Dalai Llama, he can send China and the world the message that human rights do mean something to the United States in the age of Obama.
When the Dalai Lama visited the United States in the fall, Obama declined to meet with him because, as the White House explained, he didn’t want to antagonize the Chinese right before his November Asia trip. But now that his trip — during which Beijing humiliated the president anyway — is behind him, surely the time is ripe for Obama to send China a signal that its abuses in Tibet and elsewhere are a matter of serious concern. However, the Chinese are warning Obama that a meeting with the exiled Tibetan leader would damage relations with the United States. A Communist party official announced today in Beijing — which rejects all calls for more autonomy for the oppressed people of Tibet — that there will be “consequences” if the Dalai Lama is given an official meeting.
America’s record on Chinese human rights has been spotty at best in the last generation. Bill Clinton met the Dalai Lama, but only informally. Similarly, George W. Bush only met privately with him. And despite occasional lip service paid by American leaders against China’s abuses of human rights and its jailing of democracy advocates, the animating spirit of U.S. policy toward China has been one of indifference to the plight of those Chinese yearning for freedom. Despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent condemnation of China’s attempt to escalate the muzzling of Google as well as cyber attacks on dissidents, Beijing has believed all along that this administration is a paper tiger. And as Beijing showed in November, its contempt for Obama, who foolishly hoped that appeasement might yield Chinese cooperation in stopping Iran’s nuclear program, is boundless. The Chinese believe, as do many Americans, that the size of America’s debt to China and the essential character of this administration mean they have nothing to fear from Washington.
The White House says Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama. But it doesn’t say when. Last week’s State of the Union speech demonstrated again that when challenged by domestic critics, Obama’s instincts always tell him to stick to his plans, no matter how ill-considered they might be. But until now, his response to threats from governments like the Islamist regime in Iran, China, and Russia has been to back down. The question is whether he can find the courage to stand up and do the right thing, even on a mere symbolic point like meeting with a widely revered advocate of peace. An official meeting, something that neither President Bush nor President Clinton dared to do, would be the appropriate response to Beijing’s threats. It would also be a necessary signal that, despite every other recent indication, Washington hasn’t forgotten its moral obligation to speak up for millions of Chinese locked in the laogai — the Chinese gulag.