WASHINGTON --- The Dalai Lama arrived in Washington, D.C. Monday for a weeklong visit, his schedule packed with awards ceremonies, lectures and meetings with such high-profile politicians as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. John McCain. But the highest profile politician of them all is conspicuously absent from the schedule -- President Barack Obama.
It's not that Obama does not support the Dalai Lama and his fight for democracy in Tibet. It's just that Obama wants to first meet with China's president in November before any meeting with the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government calls the Dalai Lama a "splittist" who wants to undermine China's control of Tibet, and discourages other governments from meeting with him.
Many are outraged at what they are calling Obama's "snub" of the Dalai Lama. Rep. Frank Wolf, (R) Virginia, co-chair of Congress' Human Rights Commission, called Obama's decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama “an embarrassment.”
“Whenever you sell a global religious leader out for an export deal, that's very bad. Economics should not trump human rights. You can do them both together and do them respectfully,” Wolf told The Baptist Standard.
But the White House does not see this as a snub or a sell-out. Obama has gone out of his way to show support for the Dalai Lama and Tibet. The New York Times reports that last month, he sent a senior advisor to India to meet with him. And during their first meeting at an economic summit in April, Obama conveyed "his respect" for the Dalai Lama to Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Some White House officials were worried that China might withdraw next month's invitation to Mr. Obama if he were to meet with the Dalai Lama first, a senior official told The Times, though Beijing had not issued any direct or veiled threats that it would do so.
“We want to have a good U.S.-China relationship, not just for its own sake, but because if we don’t, we won’t be able to help Tibet,” the senior official said. “If the Tibet relationship is seen as an irritant to the U.S.-China relationship, then that will cripple our ability to be of help.”
The Tibetan leader’s representative in the United States, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, said the Dalai Lama accepted Obama’s explanation and looked forward to meeting him before the end of the year.
“We feel this was the right decision, and we know President Obama is very serious about this issue,” he said. “They are also aware of the concerns people have, and they are dealing with the Chinese, obviously.”
Every president since the first President Bush has met with the Dalai Lama on his Washington visits. They were always private affairs, until the second President Bush appeared publicly with him, awarding him the Congressional Gold Medal. It's not clear if those meetings came before or after any offiicial talks with the Chinese government.
Watch as the Dalai Lama receives the Lantos Human Rights Prize on Tuesday: