Twisting China's tail

The president meets the Dalai Lama as the world warms

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This week, it's two issues, each of which is important but not enough to make a column in its own right.

President Barack Obama deserves praise for having met with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and, in effect, political leader of the world's 5.4 million Tibetans and many more Tibetan Buddhists.

The meeting at the White House amounted to a twisting of the tail of China, with which the United States has a number of contentious issues. These include a provocative U.S. sale of $6.4 billion in high-tech arms to Taiwan; China's overvalued currency, which works to the disadvantage of U.S. trade; and China's resistance to the American campaign to apply further sanctions on Iran over concerns that its nuclear program is aimed to develop a weapon.

The bottom line on the Dalai Lama is that Mr. Obama may meet with whomever he pleases. It is not up to Beijing to set his calendar in the White House.

That the Dalai Lama was an especially meritorious White House visitor was underlined last week in Pittsburgh when Bill Benter, a local business and philanthropic leader, married Vivian Fung of Hong Kong in a Tibetan Buddhist rite. One of the concluding prayers ran as follows: "May all beings attain supreme wisdom, and always abide in peace."

The supreme irony of Mr. Obama meeting with the leader of Tibet in spite of Chinese hissing is that he did it while his administration has yet to establish a meaningful dialogue with leaders of two of the most important players in reaching a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The two key parties that Mr. Obama's negotiators, starting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pretend don't exist are Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hamas controls Gaza -- 1.5 million Palestinians surrounded by and tormented by Israel. Hamas won free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006. There will be no Middle East peace settlement without Hamas.

Hezbollah is armed and dangerous, supported by Iran, right across the Israeli border in Lebanon, and was strong enough to repel successfully and survive in the face of an Israeli invasion in 2006.

Hamas and Hezbollah are key Middle East players but the United States doesn't talk with them because the Israelis object.

Israel is an ally. China certainly isn't an ally, whatever it is. The United States used to face the same nonsense from the British when they didn't want senior American leaders to meet with Catholic Irish leaders. The United States persisted, and eventually was able to play a very useful role in the negotiation of the Good Friday accord of 1998 between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. American relationships with the Catholics helped facilitate the agreement.

So why pay attention to Israeli opposition to constructive dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah? We let the objections of London, a strong ally, roll off our backs as we talked to the Irish.

There might be a case for not talking to the Tibetans, to court the Chinese with whom we have lots of differences, although I do not accept that argument. But not talking to two key Middle East elements, Hamas and Hezbollah, because our ally Israel wouldn't like it? I don't see the logic of that policy.

Big news last week that didn't receive much attention was the resignation of Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary since 2006 of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Mr. de Boer's resignation was said to reflect his discouragement at the apparently waning prospects for an effective climate change treaty in the wake of the December Copenhagen summit. No binding world accord was achieved, in spite of the presence of many key world leaders, including President Obama. The 193 countries involved are to meet again in Mexico on Dec. 1.

The case for unified global action to reduce the human impact on climate change remains strong, although at least two factors are pushing the other way.

The first is the global recession. Climate-change measures will cost money. The United States at the moment is down and out, even though it seems to have plenty for wars. How could big U.S. expenditures for a comprehensive anti-climate change program be justified with nearly 10 percent U.S. unemployment, reflecting a still-staggering U.S. economy, and big layouts continuing for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Mr. de Boer's stepping down after four years in the UNFCCC job and a much longer distinguished record at the European Union and in his own Dutch government is fully understandable.

The second incalculable factor affecting prospects for a climate change accord is the weather. Its unpredictability is being attributed by some in part to global warming.

I find it more than a little difficult to get from global warming to this February in Pittsburgh. I remain fully willing to leave Florida to the pythons and the Pennsylvania tax-dodgers, but, at this point in time, I could do with a little global warming here.

I have another subversive thought. If the glaciers, ice packs and Canada's permanently frozen ground, known as permafrost, are moving northward, doesn't that mean that more land in our friendly neighbor to the north, the gracious host of the Olympics, will become habitable?

Man has been scooting around the Earth in response to climate change since the beginning of time. Why not one more time? Why do we have to turn ourselves inside out to preserve the beachfront properties of Wall Street bankers in Florida, California, Cape Cod or the Hamptons? Let them move to James Bay in Canada.


Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( dsimpson@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1976).


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