President Obama's Thursday meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House was announced just last week, but has been in the works for months. The groundwork was laid last September, when the president quietly dispatched White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett to Dharamsala, India, to personally deliver the invitation.
Navigating relations with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet -- and the leader of Tibet's struggle for autonomy from China -- involves very delicate diplomacy. The China-U.S. bilateral relationship, while critical to both superpowers, does not keep China from pressuring Obama not to meet with the Dalai Lama. Nor has that pressure kept three former presidents -- George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush -- from meeting with the Dalai Lama anyway, over the objections of the Chinese.
Jarrett's trip to India, where the Dalai Lama has lived since 1959, was timed to come before Obama's November visit to China, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. "The president asked me to go and deliver a message to his holiness the Dalai Lama directly in Dhamasala, his home in exile, which I did and at that time invited his Holiness to come to the United States after the president had completed his trip to Asia," Jarrett told me.
We discussed the Dalai Lama during an interview in her West Wing office on Thursday, the day before she traveled to Vancouver as part of the U.S. delegation to the opening of the winter Olympic games. "And His Holiness was very gracious and said he would look forward to coming and this was a day that was mutually convenient for both."
Jarrett was accompanied on her quick trip to India in September by State Department Under Secretary Maria Otero, the Obama White House Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, who was at the time new to her post.
The Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama has been in the U.S. twice since Obama has been president, last May and October. Jarrett's September trip served to let the Dalai Lama know Obama would see him, but it could not be on that October visit, because Obama had not yet been to China.
At the time, the National Security Council did not reveal the exact nature of Jarrett's mission. Mike Hammer, the NSC spokesman told me then, "Valerie Jarrett was asked by President Obama to visit Dharamsala to convey his respect for the Dalai Lama as a religious leader and as a representative of the Tibetan culture. Tibetan religion and culture have made significant contributions to the world, and the President wished Ms. Jarrett through her visit to honor them."
"Ms. Jarrett met with the Dalai Lama on September 14. She conveyed the President's respect, and she heard his ideas about how Tibetan identity can be preserved. She also heard of his commitment to dialogue with the Chinese government, and that he does not seek independence for Tibet but rather sees Tibet's future as a part of China. We think his views deserve our attention, and that of the Chinese government."
In September, the Dalai Lama's office --the website is www.dalailama.com
-- issued a little-noticed statement about Jarrett's diplomatic debut.
According to the Dalai Lama's office, Jarrett reported that Obama "commends the Dalai Lama for being consistent in looking for a solution based on Tibetan autonomy within the People's Republic of China."
"His Holiness gave an overview of the situation of the Tibetans in exile. He informed Ms. Jarrett of the measures taken by the Tibetans in India to preserve and promote the distinct Tibetan culture and identity through the kind and generous assistance of people and government of India."
In addition, the Dalai Lama, according to his office, "updated Ms. Jarrett on the status of the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. .... Ms. Jarrett discussed with His Holiness on the best way the United States could assist in the resolution for the Tibetan issue, particularly in the light of the first visit by President Obama to China in November."
"His Holiness conveyed to Ms. Jarrett the issues that he would like President Obama to take when he visits China. His Holiness also conveyed his strong belief that the United States and China need to have very good and principled relations."
On Feb. 2, White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton was asked during a briefing if Obama would be meeting with the Dalai Lama, despite Chinese warnings. Without revealing the Feb. 18 date, Burton said U.S.-China relations were "mature enough" for Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama.
Burton disclosed on Feb. 2 that Obama "told China's leaders during his trip last year that he would meet with the Dalai Lama, and he intends to do so. The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious and cultural leader, and the President will meet with him in that capacity."
"To be clear, the U.S. considers Tibet to be a part of China. We have human rights concerns about the treatment of Tibetans. We urge the government of China to protect the unique cultural and religious traditions of Tibet. As the President has expressed, we expect that our relationship with China is mature enough where we can work on issues of mutual concern, such as climate, the global economy, and nonproliferation, and discuss frankly and candidly those issues where we disagree. The President is committed to building a positive, comprehensive, and cooperative relationship with China," Burton said.
Jarrett told me the decision to meet with the Dalai Lama was not hard to make since "he is a world leader in culture and religion. Every prior president has met with him and the president is looking forward to meeting him."
In November, she traveled to Asia with Obama and "I have had a couple of meetings with representatives of the Dalai Lama since my return as well as supporters of him who were interested in my experience in Dharamsala, so I've had a few meetings with supporters and his representative."
When asked what the Dalai Lama is like, Jarrett described him as "an extraordinarily hopeful spirit given the last 50 years of his life living in exile. I was very impressed with how, what an optimistic hopeful spirit he is."