Why Bush is Singing 'Hello, Dalai'

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The Dalai Lama speaks to the press outside the US State Department

They supposedly share an interest in the principle of compassion, but that doesn't explain why President Bush is meeting the Dalai Lama on Wednesday. After all, Bush administration critics would be quick to point out that we haven't yet seen much of the "compassionate" in the President's conservatism, and it's not for purposes of ecclesiastic discussion that the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader visits Western capitals. No, the purpose of the meeting — at least from the Bush administration's side — is to tweak China, and judging by Beijing's furious reaction, it has been a resounding success.

President Clinton, of course, met the Dalai Lama, too, but he used the diplomatic fig-leaf of the "drop-in" visit — the Tibetan leader just happened to be meeting with Vice President Gore at the White House when the President "spontaneously" dropped in on them — to assuage Beijing. President Bush, however, is holding a scheduled meeting with the Tibetan leader, and China is accusing Washington of interfering in its domestic affairs.

The visit, however, is entirely symbolic. U.S. policy does not support independence for Tibet. The Bush-Dalai Lama meeting comes a day after Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian visited New York and attended a dinner with a group of U.S. congressmen — a substantial shift in the way U.S. administrations have dealt with the island's leaders. In the more hostile atmosphere that has characterized U.S.-China relations under the Bush administration — particularly after the Hainan spy-plane standoff — Washington is happy to find symbolic gestures through which to stand up to Beijing.

The Dalai Lama takes help wherever he can get it, relying on Western financial and political support to keep alive the Tibetan cultural identity that the Chinese have sought over four decades to crush. The fact that he's being welcomed through the front door again may bring a wry edge to the Tibetan leader's trademark smile. After all, while his relationship with Hollywood has been consistent over the years, his relationship with Washington has always depended on the China policy of incumbent administration. Back in the 1960s, the CIA even paid him a salary — but that was before President Nixon began courting Beijing as an ally against Moscow.