For all of its talk about transparency, the White House shut out the press Thursday when President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama.
Instead, Obama met privately with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in the Map Room on the ground floor of the White House, far removed from reporters and photographers. Press secretary Robert Gibbs issued only a brief statement after the event, and the White House distributed a single in-house photo of the two leaders.
Typically, when a high-profile foreign dignitary is to meet with the president, photographers and reporters have an opportunity to take pictures and toss a few questions at the president and his guest at the beginning of their Oval Office meeting.
The Dalai Lama, however, is anything but a typical visiting dignitary. The Buddhist monk is viewed as a separatist by the Chinese government and his trips to Washington are always a sensitive matter. His visit forced the administration to balance its desire to avoid inflaming tensions with China with its promises of a new era of transparency in government.
Presidents past also have kept their encounters with the Dalai Lama mostly private. But Kelly McBride, leader of the Poynter Institute’s ethics group, said it’s hard for the Obama administration to square its pledges of openness with the effort to control coverage of the Dalai Lama.
“That’s not very transparent,” she said, adding that the administration appeared to be trying to control coverage without completely stifling it. “Trying to control what people make of the images is a difficult task, and probably one of the easiest ways to do that is to limit the number of images.”
Asked why the White House had restricted press access, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest released the following statement: “Rather than restrict the president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama to a limited group of photographers, the White House has made available a photo of the meeting at flickr.com/whitehouse to allow any individual or news outlet around the world to view and download that photo free of charge.”
Yeah, that’s really transparent. And of course, this stirring display of White House courage will surely prevent the Chinese from throwing temper tantrums in the future about the identity of people on the White House’s guest list.
Note that the fact that other Presidents tried to hide their meetings with the Dalai Lama as well does not justify the actions of the Obama Administration. No American strategic interests are served with behavior that makes it appear that the United States is scared of China.