It was a sad week for American support for oppressed nations. The White House announced that it will not be meeting for now with the Dalai Lama, one of the world’s pre-eminent defenders of human rights and most recognized religious leaders, during his visit to Washington. President Obama will wait until he has had a chance to travel to China in November, one of the world’s five remaining communist dictatorships. It is a strange and troubling reversal for “the leader of the free world.”

The cause of Tibet has in the past united political leaders across the political spectrum in Washington and as far away as Hollywood. Remember Sen. Jesse Helms and actor/activist Richard Gere in 1997 sharing a stage in support of Tibet in 1997? Since 1991, the Dalai Lama has met with three U.S. presidents, both Republicans and Democrats. That kind of support from the most powerful country in the world is incalculable for activists trying to keep the cause of human rights and liberty in Tibet alive. The country has slowly but surely experienced cultural and demographic cleansing since the takeover by China in 1950, as Chinese populations have replaced the native Tibetans. The fact that the Tibetan religious leader will meet with the new U.S. coordinator for Tibet, Maria Otero, does not make up for the loss of the prestige that a White House meeting confers.

In pursuit of a foreign policy direction that appears inspired by pragmatism and big power diplomacy, the Obama administration is breaking with long-standing precedent and sending distressing messages abroad about American priorities in the 21st century. There is, however, consistency in the Obama administration’s messaging.

In her first major foreign trip, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in Beijing that she did not intend for human rights to stand in the way of other issues of mutual interest between the United States and China. Furthermore, President Obama’s declaration on the occasion of Captive Nations Week in July was perfunctory at best. Although the president spoke of “fundamental freedoms,” and “universal principles,” he failed to call attention to the actual captive nations of the world, this by stark contrast with the eloquent and passinate statement of his predecessor George W. Bush.

At this rate, the administration will soon have whittled away a century of American leadership, in spite of all the presidential imaging and rhetoric.