By Barry Rubin
The postponement by President Barack Obama of his meeting with Tibetan exiled leader the Dalai Lama is a fascinating case study of contemporary foreign policy, the constraints posed by realistic strategy, and the upside-down world in which we live at present.
But it can only be useful if approached fairly rather than being used as one more stick with which to bash Obama (who needs more, anyway?). So I am going to go through this in the most balanced way I can.
First, the facts. The Dalai Lama is the exiled leader of the Tibetan people. Tibet, an area over which China had some claim but hardly an irrefutable one, was annexed by Beijing and invaded. The Tibetan people--a very distinct group in appearance, culture, and religion--were repressed by force and China sent in huge numbers of ethnic Chinese (Han) settlers who have altered the demographic balance.
Virtually no other country has helped the Tibetans. Their cause is not the subject of large demonstrations. They have never used violence, being a peaceful people if there ever was one. The UN has not devoted hundreds of sessions and resolutions to their benefit. The current president of the United States has not called their situation intolerable. The media is not obsessed with their plight.
Since 1991 the Dalai Lama has visited Washington ten times and been met by the president each one of them. In 2007, the last time, President George W. Bush met him publicly, the first chief executive to do that, and presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal.
It is important to note for what is to come that U.S.-China relations continued to do quite well afterward.
Now, Obama has not canceled meeting him forever but has postponed the meeting to please the Chinese government. This is not the first such step in that direction. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly downplayed China's human rights’ violations and the U.S. Treasury has gone soft on some of China’s questionable financial practices.
No doubt, postponing the meeting will make Obama more popular in China—at least in official circles which are the only ones heard--which can be said to make one billion people love America more, a goal that sometimes seems the main priority of U.S. foreign policy.
Obama is not completely wrong in the postponement decision, though, given other considerations. He is trying to get China to sign on to higher sanctions on Iran and he will meet the Chinese leader next month. China is also of increasing importance to the United States in dealing with the international financial crisis.
So for Obama to act as he did is arguably the best decision. Yet there are a number of points that should also be raised as to why it is a bad choice:
--Other presidents met with the Dalai Lama without problems in bilateral relations with China. Obama has a tendency to give in to much which then leads to other countries becoming excessively emboldened to ignore or make growing demands on America. The late J.B. Kelly, a brilliant Middle East expert who died last month, created a memorable phrase for this kind of behavior: the preemptive cringe.
--You sometimes do things to make adversaries or interlocutors unhappy precisely to gain bargaining chips with them. The purpose of the lesson is to show that they need you more than you need them. If they want some benefit then they must give something also. Obama and his colleagues seem genuinely incapable of understanding the role played in international affairs by such techniques as making threats and acting tough, gaining leverage, developing deterrence, having credibility, being seen as ready to use military force if necessary, and so on.
--Obama does not seem to understand how to combine American concessions with successful negotiations that get concessions from the other side. He gives something and then hopes the other side will reciprocate, a tactic that doesn't work, especially with dictatorships. China should already have been tested on whether it will support higher sanctions before the United States gives away anything to it. But instead the Chinese have been making it clear they won’t help on Iran. On the contrary, they're building a huge refinery in Iran that will help Tehran circumvent refined petroleum products’ sanctions if they ever are imposed. What possible reason is there to believe that Obama will get anything in exchange for the things he gives to Beijing?
--If the Chinese have done bad things to Tibet and the Tibetans, why should they escape censure completely? Under Obama’s strategy, only the United States and its allies get lambasted by the world. If only one side is criticized doesn’t that make it appear that this is the only side at fault?
--Besides, since Obama seems to believe in apologizing so much, shouldn’t he call for the Chinese to apologize over Tibet? After all, the Japanese have apologized repeatedly for their past treatment of China. Why should Obama apologize to China or other countries when they have no intention of apologizing to the United States and others? Part of the answer is that they are not like Obama and won't admit having done wrong. Still, though, if you put pressure on them they may well agree to a mutual de-escalation of criticism; if you don’t, they will just step up their barrages against you.
--If the president is going to talk about bad things America has done, why not trumpet just as loudly—in fact, a president should do so more loudly—all the good things the United States has done at home and abroad? Support for human rights around the world should be at the top of the foreign policy category there. Yet by his behavior, both on Tibet and other issues, isn’t Obama simply adding to the list of things for which a future president must apologize, even if its for betraying allies, selling out whole peoples, and jeopardizing U.S. national interests by giving away too much?
--Doesn’t this pattern of behavior, as regards the Dali Lama, make Obama into an apologist for dictatorship, a friend of the oppressive and repressive, and someone who betrays people for expediency? We liberals used to call this kind of behavior that of a right-wing reactionary who's only interested in money and strategic considerations while the people are trampled.
The problem, then, is not Obama’s isolated decision to postpone a meeting—which has some justification though still debatable--but the context in which this becomes just one more item showing the U.S. president to be too weak, conceding too much, and promoting American values and interests too little.
Here's the best piece I've seen on the Dalai Lama meeting issue.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books