The received wisdom has it that only Nixon could have gone to China, and I imagine that in this case the received wisdom is right. By the same token, though, I hope it will one day be recognized that only Barack Obama could go to China by stabbing the Dalai Lama in the back. That day will be long in coming, no doubt. As I sat down this morning (Friday, 9 October) to type out this column I was almost immediately confronted with the surreal news—which I, like almost everyone else in all likelihood, mistook at first for a joke—that the president is to be the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Anyone whose glamor is so preponderating that he can be given an award of such significance purely on spec is unlikely to fall afoul of “educated opinion” any time soon. As a member of no political party, I tend to remain as aloof as I can from partisan polemics (having staked no claims, I have no rights); but I would hope that even Obama’s most ardent supporters would have enough sense to be more embarrassed than pleased by the absurdity of the Nobel committee’s hysterical fawning.
For me, though—and this is what I intended to write about when I turned on my iMac—what is especially annoying about this story is that it will utterly extinguish the faintly flickering visibility of a story that appeared only four days ago, and then only as a somewhat furtive and fugitive presence in the press (and then, for the most part, only the foreign press). For those who missed it, when the Dalai Lama arrived in Washington this past Monday for, among other things, a scheduled audience with the president, it was disclosed that his visit to the White House had been cancelled. And this decision had been taken—there was no attempt to hide this fact—in order to please the Chinese government, which has of late been making a concerted effort to see that the Dalai Lama is made a persona non grata in the halls of power in countries around the world.
The damage the president’s decision does the cause of Tibetan independence—which is scarcely even a pipe dream in any event—is entirely unquantifiable, admittedly. But this is the first time since 1991 that an American administration has declined such a meeting, and by waiting till the arrival of the Tibetan delegation in Washington to make the announcement, the White House succeeded in making the rebuff as public as it could possibly be. Other governments around the world, enduring similar pressure from the Chinese government to refuse the Dalai Lama access to their heads of state, have now been given considerable cover by Obama, the world’s most popular political figure and (so we are always told) “leader of the free world.” And no doubt it has given the superintendants of Chinese prisons a pleasantly dispiriting tale to relate to the Buddhist monks and nuns in their custody.
Ah, well. After all, Hillary Clinton made it quite clear to the People’s Republic of China leadership several months ago that the United States had no intention of allowing such trivial matters as “human rights” or “internal territorial disputes” to create any obstacles in the way of US trade relations with our dear friends and creditors in Beijing. So I suppose the Obama administration is simply being consistent. At least, one cannot really accuse them of hypocrisy. And I must say that, with today’s news, a certain delectable irony has insinuated itself into this whole episode. Now that the president has won the Nobel Peace Prize, on absolutely no record of achievements whatsoever, his decision to spurn the friendship of another winner of the same award, and one who actually had done something to merit it, gives the story a pleasingly symmetrical fullness.
One does not have to romanticize the Tibetan cause to recognize its essential justice. Many of the social ills that the Chinese today cite as partial justifications of their conquest of Tibet were quite real. Tibet was something of a theocracy, and the great monasteries were in many respects feudal mansions casting long shadows over a largely unjust social order. Moreover, the history of the rise of the Gelug order—the order from which the Dalai Lama comes—to predominance in Tibet is as much a history of political machination, bloodshed, and strategic alliances with Mongol emperors as anything else. As for the dynastic succession of tulkus—lamas who return life after life—it is something of a late mediaeval invention with only dubious Buddhist pedigrees. This is not to say that I know for a fact that the Dalai Lama is not an emanation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara—I am not privy to that sort of high-level intelligence—but it is to say that his right of rule is as much a debatable issue as the authority of any other hereditary monarch. There is considerable evidence, of course, that the current Kundun (Dalai Lama, that is) had many good intentions on assuming his position, and wanted to undertake the sort of social reforms that would have won the admiration of the great democracies. But one cannot say what success he would have had.
None of these facts, however, in any measure mitigates the monstrous crime of China’s invasion of Tibet on the pretext of some fatuous historical claim to sovereignty over the region, or of the rule of terror, torture, imprisonment, and disenfranchisement by which it governs there, or of its systematic policy of cultural destruction. And those Tibetans who continue to resist their oppressors have no weapons at their disposal apart from the disapproval that foreign leaders are willing to express regarding Beijing’s policies and the solidarity they are willing to express with the Tibetan government in exile.
I realize that, at the end of the day, the United States has no vital interests in the Himalayas. The international market in Yak-milk butter and dyed scarves is vanishingly small. Moreover, every American administration has to make prudential judgments regarding relations with rich and powerful friends or enemies. And, of course, the international financial situation now makes every move on the chessboard seem more perilous and more momentous. But meeting with the Dalai Lama is a gesture of conscience that Republican and Democrat administrations have made several times in the past, one that never had the dire consequences Beijing foretold, and one that would almost certainly have no real consequences now, for good or ill. I even acknowledge that, in some respects, it is a futile gesture. But, even so, the Obama administration’s decision was an act of moral cowardice, and ought to be deplored as such.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.