Two weeks after the White House was blindsided by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to Washington, another world figure who creates awkward politics for President Obama is coming to town Thursday.
The Dalai Lama is not a head of state, and he formally gave up his political role in Tibet’s exile government three years ago. But his appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, where Obama will deliver an address about religious freedom, has already drawn sharp objections from Chinese leaders, who oppose meetings between the religious leader and world politicians.
Each of Obama’s three meetings with the Dalai Lama at the White House has brought a similar rebuke from Beijing. In a bid to head off tensions, administration officials emphasized that the White House played no role in arranging the Dalai Lama’s appearance at the annual breakfast at the Washington Hilton. There are no plans for them to meet.
Furthermore, the Dalai Lama will have no speaking role at the breakfast, and he will not sit onstage, event organizers said. In a statement, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan called Obama “a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama’s teachings and preserving Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions.”
She did not mention his past political activism.
The machinations surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit illustrate his unique standing as a global icon. Perhaps no other person who is not a head of state forces the White House into such contortions — simultaneously embracing him as a symbol of democratic values and keeping him at a remove because of his status as a political lightning rod.
By comparison, Obama kissed the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi during a visit to Burma in November.
“The president’s desire, and probably need, to meet with the Dalai Lama is a function of U.S. domestic politics and a desire in the White House to be seen standing up for human rights,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But they do understand we have to be careful with our relations with China.”
Organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast did not respond to requests for comment. But a Capitol Hill aide familiar with the planning said the organizers informed the Senate offices of event co-chairmen Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) of their plans. The White House did not object, the aide said.
The Dalai Lama’s appearance comes a year after Obama directly addressed the plight of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, another Chinese religious group that has clashed with Beijing.
“When I meet with Chinese leaders . . . I stress that realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universal rights,” Obama said in 2014.
China’s concerns are grounded in long-standing fears over the Dalai Lama’s role as the spiritual, and sometimes political, leader of Tibet’s push for economic and cultural autonomy from Beijing. China has called the exiled Nobel Peace Prize winner a violent separatist.
The sensitivities are not unique to the Obama White House. Obama’s predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also walked a fine line. The presidents have met with the Dalai Lama in the Map Room, in the White House residence, to emphasize that the meetings are personal, not political. Often, including on the Dalai Lama’s most recent meeting with Obama a year ago, White House reporters are barred from the event.
The provisions allow Beijing to save face, said Michael Green, Asia director in the Bush administration. But the irony, he added, is that “from an American perspective and from the perspective of His Holiness, a meeting at length in the residence is more personal.”
In 2007, Bush visited Capitol Hill to award the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal — but he made sure to personally inform then-Chinese President Hu Jintao of his plans during a summit in Australia a month prior to the ceremony.
Despite the heads-up, a Chinese foreign ministry official charged that Bush’s actions “seriously violate the basic principles of international relations.”
Asked about the criticism, the Dalai Lama scoffed. “That always happens,” he said. (After leaving the White House, Bush painted a portrait of the religious leader.)
China experts said Obama’s appearances with the Dalai Lama are unlikely to directly affect foreign policy outcomes on major issues — such as the climate accord that Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in November.
“Both sides are constantly doing things that irritate each other,” said Elizabeth C. Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The Chinese blocked the New York Times’ Web site. They do things that irritate us, but we don’t allow the entire relationship to devolve because of this.”
Still, the Obama administration has stumbled at times. In 2009, the White House postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama that had been scheduled for one month before Obama was to make his inaugural trip to Beijing. The president dispatched Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser, to Dharamsala, India, where the religious leader lives in exile, to make amends.
Despite the U.S. gesture, Hu offered no reciprocal olive branch during what the media saw as a largely unsuccessful trip to China for Obama in November 2009.
Three months later, in February 2010, the Dalai Lama arrived at the White House to meet with Obama in the Map Room. The president presented him a copy of a letter that Franklin Roosevelt had written to the 8-year-old Dalai Lama in 1943, according to “Obama and China’s Rise,” a book by Jeffrey A. Bader, who was Obama’s Asia director from 2009 to 2011.
The meeting went smoothly until the Dalai Lama stopped on his way out to speak with journalists. According to Bader’s book, the Dalai Lama passed trash bags that had piled up because of a snowstorm — a scene caught on camera and seized upon by outraged conservative talk show hosts who erroneously accused Obama of sending the Dalai Lama out the back door to pacify the Chinese.
Robert J. Barnett, director of the modern Tibet studies program at Columbia University, said the White House has regained its leverage since then.
“The question is whether the Americans have played a really smart move here by allowing this event to take place,” Barnett said of the prayer breakfast. “It completely checkmates the Chinese, since the Americans can deny it’s a meeting, and the Chinese can’t justify their heavy-handed response. Their bluff has been called again.”