It takes a special talent to aggravate the Chinese government, the White House press corps, and the followers of the Dalai Lama all in one fell swoop. But the Obama administration managed to pull off that trifecta on Thursday with its poor handling of the Dalai Lama's meeting with the president.
The Chinese always work themselves into high dudgeon over these meetings, and this time was no exception. The Obama White House thought they could lower the volume of China's tantrum by trying to keep the meeting "low-key" and private. The meeting took place in the Map Room (known by female visitors to the White House as that room you go through to get to the ladies room) instead of the Oval Office. There was no joint public appearance, and the White House press secretary issued a tortured statement expressing support for the preservation of Tibetan culture against some unnamed threat.
The Chinese missed the memo that these attempts at downplaying the meeting were supposed to mollify them, and came out swinging. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu (or "Beijing Bob"), accused the White House of having "seriously interfered in China's internal affairs" and "seriously hurt the national feelings of the Chinese people" (all 1.3 billion of them!). Ma also demanded that the U.S. stop its "connivance and support of the anti-China splittist forces." Pity poor U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman who had to sit and listen to this message in person.
The White House press corps got its knickers in a twist after the White House tried to cancel the Dalai Lama's traditional post meeting press availability. (First it was on, then it was off, finally it was back on.) The White House again angered the press with its bizarre decision to release only a single photo of the meeting, and doing it via photo-sharing website Flickr.com -- yes, the place where people put funny pictures of their cats -- rather than on the White House's website. The AP actually issued a protest over this, accusing the White House of a lack of transparency, and refused to publish the Flickr photo.
But the piece de resistance was how the White House managed to turn what should have been a moment of celebration for the Dalai Lama's supporters in the United States and worldwide into a stunning display of disrespect. Apparently someone forgot to move an enormous pile of garbage from the service entrance that the Dalai Lama used to exit the White House yesterday, so the first image that the assembled press corps snapped was of him literally next to a huge mound of rubbish. Classy.
This kind of failure to handle the basic management of presidential diplomacy does more than make the White House look incompetent. In the case of Tibet, it actually undermines U.S. policy, which is to support dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government (it's also public law). If the American president can't manage to treat the Dalai Lama with an appropriate level of dignity and respect, how can we seriously ask the Chinese to sit down and negotiate with him on matters of core national interest?