WASHINGTON -- Two Octobers ago, the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal, one of America's highest civilian honors, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked of a "special relationship between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the United States." Said Sen. Mitch McConnell: "We have reached out in solidarity to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, and the Chinese government needs to know that we will continue to do so." President George W. Bush urged Chinese leaders "to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation."
This October, on a scheduled visit to the United States, the Dalai Lama will not be welcomed at the White House. Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was recently dispatched to Dharamsala -- the Dalai Lama's place of exile in northern India -- to gently deliver the message. The Tibetans took the news, as usual, nonviolently. "A lot of nations are adopting a policy of appeasement (toward China)," observed Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile. "I understand why Obama is not meeting with the Dalai Lama before his Chinese trip. It is common sense. Obama should not irritate the Chinese leadership."
The Obama administration has its diplomatic reasons. After the uprisings of 2008, the Chinese government is particularly sensitive on the topic of Tibet. China's President Hu Jintao is a guest in the United States this week. And administration officials hint that Obama will eventually meet with the Dalai Lama, following the president's own visit to China in November.
Yet between the gold medal and the cold shoulder, a large diplomatic signal is being sent.
It is not that Obama is completely unwilling to anger the Chinese. Earlier this month he imposed a 35 percent tariff on tire imports from China, leading to talk of a trade war. The head of the United Steelworkers said the president was willing to "put himself in the line of fire for the jobs of U.S. workers." But Obama is clearly less willing to put himself in the diplomatic line of fire for other, less tangibly political reasons.