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Palin makes her debut on the international stage

The GOP vice presidential candidate, facing criticism for her lack of experience, meets with foreign leaders.

September 24, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer
  • Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the UN General Assembly.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the… (Chris Hondros / Getty Images )

NEW YORK — The foreign policy education of Sarah Palin began in earnest Tuesday.

The small-town mayor turned governor of Alaska, who has barely traveled overseas, sat with leaders from some of the most troubled places in the world.

They talked about global hot spots that may be trouble for the United States and the United Nations, but which represent an opportunity for the Republican vice presidential candidate to show some understanding of international issues.

Tuesday's tutorials were with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Palin, wearing Alaska-shaped gold earrings, also consulted for almost 90 minutes with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in his Park Avenue office.

The candidate's staff carefully choreographed her debut onto the international stage, starting each meeting with a brief photo opportunity and allowing no questions. Unscripted moments were kept to a minimum.

At first, the campaign wanted to keep reporters out altogether. But after the five major television networks threatened to boycott coverage of the Palin meetings, a pool that included a print journalist eventually was allowed in.

During their session, Palin and Kissinger were photographed sitting on side-by-side couches, leaning toward each other. A table separating them was covered with photographs of Kissinger in the Oval Office with former Republican Presidents Reagan and Nixon. "Henry, thanks for your steady advice, Best George," read another picture inscribed by the man now in the White House.

Today, Palin and the GOP presidential nominee, John McCain, have sessions scheduled with the presidents of Georgia and Ukraine. Then there's lunch with the president of Pakistan and another joint appearance with McCain and a world celebrity of a different stripe -- U2 singer Bono. In the evening, Palin has a meeting planned with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Even some in her own party have criticized Palin for citing Alaska's proximity to Russia as evidence of her international exposure.

In fact, her foreign travel has been so sparse that her campaign initially counted a touchdown in Ireland as a visit.

During an interview with ABC News' Charles Gibson shortly after she was selected to be McCain's running mate, Palin admitted that she had never met a head of state.

But, she added, "I think if you go back in history and if you ask that question of many vice presidents, they may have the same answer." (Spiro Agnew, who served from 1969 to 1973, apparently was the last vice president to have no contact with foreign leaders before taking office.)

In nine days, Palin will be tested on her foreign policy expertise in the most public of forums -- she'll debate Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has met with all of Palin's tutors multiple times.

The meetings Tuesday, on the opening day of the U.N. General Assembly, were "clearly geared to build up [Palin's] bona fides . . . and you can just believe she'll drop every one of those names as many times as she can during the debates and in upcoming speeches," said Shepard Forman, director emeritus and senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

However, Steve Biegun -- one of two advisors who have been giving Palin a crash course in foreign policy and who accompanied her Tuesday -- said the goal was not to fill out the candidate's resume: It was to familiarize Palin with some of America's closest allies and help her learn about their perspectives on pressing international matters.

"Obviously, she was meeting with some people who are very well-established leaders, and her purpose in these meetings was to develop a relationship and listen," said Biegun, later lauding Palin's skill at establishing a rapport. "She has a great style."

With Karzai, Palin made a quick connection as a parent.

While being photographed, they could be overheard discussing the Afghan leader's son, who was born in January 2007.

"What's his name?" Palin asked.

"Mirwais," Karzai said. "Mirwais, which means the light of the house."

"Oh, nice," said Palin, who was seen patting her heart and smiling.

Standing outside the Midtown hotel where Palin was meeting with Karzai, Tamara Sverdlov, a business analyst, said the vice presidential nominee's experience as a mother of five probably made up for her lack of foreign policy chops.

"If she can manage five kids, she can run the politics of the world," said Sverdlov, who is Russian and has three children.

--

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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