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Serving Up Symbolism on Tibet and Turkey

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First, there was Nancy Pelosi's decision to pursue a resolution condemning Turkey for the 1915 Armenian genocide (whose fate, it now appears, is uncertain). Then yesterday, President Bush, Pelosi, and everybody else in between showed up at the Capitol to publicly embrace the Dalai Lama.

Strictly on their own terms, these were unobjectionable gestures. For the Dalai Lama, appearing publicly with a U.S. president is a long-overdue diplomatic coup. Turkey should come to terms with its own historical culpability rather than denying it. And the diplomatic fallout from these symbolic events almost certainly won't be game-changing.

But why now? For the United States, these attempts to embrace two small, historically oppressed ethnic minorities are self-conscious distractions from the terrible messes we've created in other parts of the world. It's kitsch as Milan Kundera defined it: "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

In the process of steering our own strategic interests in a ditch over the past five years, America has lost its credibility as an international model for the democratic ideal, as a promulgator of justice. Yet Washington is stuck in a kind of feedback loop of denial over Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorism, the same tired arguments forever circling, and never engaging, the problems. So our leaders turn to symbolism and sentimentality to convince us that we're still the America we once fancied ourselves being.

It's our own predicament that should provoke some soul-searching about historical culpability.