Barack Obama did the right thing and met with the Dalai Lama today. The White House issued a statement after the private meeting, in which the president appropriately backed 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.” While it broke no new ground, this is what we expect the leader of what we once called the “free world” to do: to use the moral and physical power of his office to stand with oppressed people like those in the captive nation of Tibet.
Predictably, the meeting has produced a great deal of huffing and puffing from the Chinese, who regard any criticism of their imperial reign in Tibet as a mortal offense. But those who fear that embracing the Dalai Lama will set in motion an international crisis are either alarmists or apologists for Beijing. Among the latter category are those who have been speaking in defense of China’s rule in Tibet and leaving out such minor nasty details as the brutal oppression of its native people and cultural genocide. An excellent example comes from Newsweek, which published a piece yesterday by their Beijing correspondent, Isaac Stone Fish, claiming China “has been good to Tibet.” Stone isn’t exactly an old China hand, as his Facebook page describes him as a recent graduate of Columbia University. But while young in years, the piece shows that he is apparently very wise in the ways of sucking up to the government of the country that he is covering.
But such distasteful flummery aside, it’s now worth asking ourselves whether the Obama administration might not be in a stronger position vis-à-vis China had it not spent its first year foolishly pursuing appeasement of Beijing. As Obama’s November trip to China proved, the Chinese (much like their friends in Iran) saw the president’s obsequious attitude as an expression of weakness and acted accordingly. Had the president started off his term by staking out the moral high ground on Tibet and making it clear that the United States wouldn’t abandon Taiwan, then minimal gestures like meeting with the Dalai Lama and selling arms to Taipei wouldn’t be cause for a crisis. Nor would the speculation about the impact of monetary issues and the amount of our debt to China be used as justification for our silence on human rights. Having come in to office solely obsessed with doing everything differently than George W. Bush, Obama is learning the hard way that his foolish belief in engagement and the power of his own personality is no substitute for hardheaded policy and principles.