Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin took her first tentative steps into the world of international diplomacy Tuesday, beginning a series of meetings with world leaders while simultaneously trying to keep the world — or at least the news media — out.
UNITED NATIONS — Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin took her first tentative steps into the world of international diplomacy Tuesday, beginning a series of meetings with world leaders while simultaneously trying to keep the world — or at least the news media — out.
Palin, whose lack of foreign-policy experience has been a target of criticism from her Democratic opponents, met the leaders of Afghanistan and Colombia, key U.S. allies, and traveled by motorcade to the office of Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser and secretary of state.
The meetings, and more to come today, appeared to be largely courtesy calls designed to demonstrate that the Alaska governor is capable of dealing one-on-one with foreign counterparts.
Her activities drew attention from the opening of the annual United Nations General Assembly, which featured President Bush’s farewell address and a rambling, religion-themed speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
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Ahmadinejad gave no ground in Iran’s nuclear dispute with the West, saying, in a reference to the United States, that “a few bullying powers have sought to put hurdles in the way of the peaceful nuclear activities of the Iranian nation.”
Controversy erupted when the McCain-Palin campaign tried to bar reporters from attending a brief photo session preceding a meeting between Palin and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
CNN, which was providing pooled video of the encounter for the other television networks, threatened to withdraw its cameras, according to network officials, thus denying the campaign the pictures it wanted of Palin-as-diplomat. The campaign relented.
Peter Hamby, a CNN producer, wrote in a pool report that journalists were allowed into the room where Palin and Karzai met for 29 seconds. Above the click of cameras, the two were overheard discussing Karzai’s 20-month-old son, Mirwais.
Since GOP nominee Sen. John McCain chose Palin as his running mate, his campaign has tried to shield her from unscripted encounters with the media and the public.
Jon Alterman, a scholar at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Palin’s New York diplomatic mission could help her and hurt her.
“It cuts both ways. On the one hand, she can say, I’ve met with all these people, I know how to do this,” Alterman said. “On the other hand, it underlines that she hasn’t done it until the end of September,” less than two months before she could be elected vice president.
“The challenge is getting things out of your meetings and getting people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do,” he added. “That’s not the kind of meeting she’s having. They’re courtesy meetings.”
At Palin’s first meeting, Karzai spoke about the contributions of the Alaska National Guard and said he had flown in a C-150 with some of its members, said Steve Biegun, a former staff member of Bush’s National Security Council. CNN’s Hamby said that Karzai also spoke of the birth of his first child last year.
“What is his name?” Palin asked.
“Mirwais,” Karzai replied. “Mirwais, which means, ‘The Light of the House.’ ‘
“Oh, nice,” Palin responded, at one point patting her heart.
“He is the only one we have,” Karzai said.
Later, asked how the meeting went, Karzai said, “It was fine.” Asked again, he said, “It was a very good meeting; we talked a lot about a lot of things.”
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, speaking in Spanish after his 25-minute encounter with Palin, called the meeting constructive, a diplomatic term that’s used to describe virtually every meeting, and said it focused on a stalled U.S. free-trade agreement with the nation’s closest South American ally.
Democrats and some Republicans have tried to make Palin’s lack of foreign-policy experience an issue in the campaign.
McCain’s campaign aides have made three main points when asked about Palin’s foreign-policy credentials. They invoke geography, noting Alaska’s proximity to Russia, as Palin did when she told ABC News that “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.” Other times they cite her résumé, noting that as governor she has been commander of the Alaska National Guard for nearly two years. And they often refer to her work on energy policy, as McCain did last week, when he said, “I’m proud of her obvious knowledge of this nation’s energy needs, because that’s a national-security issue.”
But with next week’s debate looming, the McCain-Palin campaign has put her on an accelerated course in foreign policy, and scheduled a series of meetings with world leaders and foreign-policy mandarins in New York.
Palin is due to meet today with the presidents of Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine and Pakistan and with the prime minister of India. She also will meet the rock star-philanthropist Bono.
Palin wrapped up the day with Kissinger. Biegun said they discussed Russia, China and Iran, among other things. As photographers were led in to take pictures of them, Kissinger could be heard saying he gave someone — just who was unintelligible — “a lot of credit for what he did in Georgia,” according to the reporter who was allowed to watch.
“Good, good,” Palin said. “And you’ll give me more insight on that, also, huh? Good.”
The photographers were ushered out.
Ahmadinejad at the U.N.
At the United Nations meeting, Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran has cooperated fully with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors although a week-old agency report says that Iran has stonewalled the agency’s investigation into whether it’s conducted nuclear-weapons research.
The Iranian leader, who has questioned Israel’s right to exist, also laced his speech with attacks on “Zionists.”
He also said “the American empire” is nearing collapse and should end its military involvement in other countries.
Hours earlier, Bush, making what’s likely to be his last speech in the General Assembly hall, revisited familiar themes of fighting terrorism and weapons proliferation. He’s never been well-received at the United Nations, and spoke without evident enthusiasm.
With world leaders, particularly from developing countries, alarmed by the U.S. financial crisis, Bush predicted that Congress would act quickly on his $700 billion bailout plan.
Information from The New York Times is included in this report.