Dalai Lama to Meet Obama: Behind the Visit

After two weeks of trying, the Tibetan spiritual leader finally gets face time with the president.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and former leader-in-exile of Tibet, has had no trouble amassing an audience in Washington—except with one man.

Each morning for the past two weeks, the holy figure and former head of state has packed Washington’s Verizon Center, the city’s basketball arena, for teaching and praying sessions. But despite high-profile meet-and-greets with congressional leaders, aides had been unable to land him a meeting a mere 10 blocks across town at the White House.

The Dalai Lama, who supporters simply refer to as His Holiness or HHDL, had wanted to meet with President Obama during his stay, as all foreign leaders do, to raise his American profile, a person close to his circle told The Daily Beast earlier this week. In the age of foreign relations optics, the move also would have been a swipe at the Chinese government, with whom Tibetans have a long and rocky political history in the region.

For much of the week, the White House blamed Obama’s lack of an invitation on the president’s schedule, which was cleared each day for strategy sessions on the nation’s debt limit and afternoon meetings with congressional leaders. Obama, one official noted, had also met with His Holiness just last year.

But on Friday night, the administration announced it would make time for a meeting with the holy leader on Saturday afternoon inside the White House Map Room, where the pair would meet for at least 30 minutes.

The White House confirmed that it, rather than the Dalai Lama, initiated the meeting. The primary apparent condition: no news cameras of any kind.

“It’s something we’ve wanted to get scheduled all week, but obviously this has been a unique time with the ongoing debt talks and the president’s schedule getting torn up several times a day,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “The president is extremely pleased that he’ll have the opportunity to meet with His Holiness while he’s in Washington.”

The camera prohibition may be as political as it is diplomatic.

The Obama administration has devoted considerable effort to rebuilding an often-tense relationship with China. The rising nation, Obama has said, will be a key part of America’s prolonged economic recovery as an importer of American goods and a manufacturer of products designed in the U.S. It is also uniquely positioned as a helpful ally in trying to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.

Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Beijing on a tour through the region designed to boost U.S. alliances, especially with China, whose president, Hu Jintao, was treated to a formal state visit at the White House in January.

“This region and the global challenges that we face together are just too vital and too vast for us to continue to find obstacles to a better understanding of each other,” Mullen said after arriving in Beijing. “Containing China is not the case... we would like to see China in the long run to be a strong partner with the United States to resolve some of the issues that we have got both regionally and globally.”

The Chinese government swiftly responded to news of the White House meeting. “We firmly oppose any senior foreign government officials meeting with the Dalai Lama in any way,” Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said in a statement. He called on Obama to cancel the meeting, warning it could harm U.S.-China relations.

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Top Chinese officials have also bristled at other high-profile audiences with the Tibetan leader, even preempting meetings by applying pressure to foreign governments.

Last month, during a visit to Canberra, the Dalai Lama was refused a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her office downplayed the cold shoulder by saying that “Australian prime ministers have not met the Dalai Lama on every occasion he has visited Australia.”

The snub, however, was widely interpreted to be in deference to China, Australia’s largest trading partner.