At the American Prospect, Michelle Goldberg questions the extent to which we should read into President Obama’s decision to not meet with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington this week:

Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, president of Tibet House U.S., and a close friend and disciple of the Dalai Lama, insists that Tibetans and their supporters have no cause to feel let down. “There’s even talk in some circles that His Holiness may have encouraged Obama” to postpone the meeting, Thurman says. Bush met with the Dalai Lama repeatedly, but his embrace ultimately did nothing to help the Tibetan cause, Thurman argues. “We want someone to be intelligent in [his] support,” he says. Obama is “trying to be a little strategic here.” By putting off his meeting with the Dalai Lama, Thurman says, Obama can talk to the Chinese “without giving them an excuse to huff and puff”—and maybe advance Tibetan issues in the process.

Conservatives, obviously, don’t see it this way. “It’s becoming clear that Mr. Obama’s definition of ‘engagement’ leaves plenty of room to meet with dictators, but less for the men and women who challenge them,” opined The Wall Street JournalAgence-France Presse quoted Republican Congressman Frank Wolf saying, “What would a Buddhist monk or Buddhist nun in [China’s] Drapchi prison think when he heard that President Obama, the president of the United States, is not going to meet with the Dalai Lama?”

He has a point. The symbolism of this missed meeting is terrible, and in international affairs, symbolism can be a form of policy. After all, the only real political currency Tibet has lies in the moral authority and international stature of the Dalai Lama. Years ago, I worked as a volunteer English teacher at a school for Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, and I later spent a month traveling in Tibet. I was always struck by how proud Tibetans are of the Dalai Lama’s global standing. Particularly for the refugees, it was a source of sustaining hope. Beyond that, the Dalai Lama’s status as a global icon has helped keep international attention focused on Tibet and has ensured relatively generous support for Tibetans in exile.

Read the full article here.