Politics & Government

Palin meets world leaders, but keeps the public at arm's length

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 then traveled by motorcade to the headquarters of Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's national security adviser and secretary of state.

The meetings, and more to come on Wednesday, appeared to be largely courtesy calls designed to demonstrate that the Alaska governor is capable of dealing one-on-one with foreign counterparts.

Palin's 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.

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 both 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."

Karzai, however, who depends on U.S. backing to sustain his fragile government in Kabul, had warm words for Palin. The meeting was "very good. I found her quite a capable woman. She asked the right questions on Afghanistan," Karzai said in an appearance later before the Asia Society in New York.

Columbian President Alvaro 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 Washington's closest South American ally.

Palin is due to meet Wednesday with the presidents of Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine and Pakistan and with the prime minister of India, all of whom are either U.S. allies or have good relations with Washington. She also will meet the rock star-philanthropist Bono.

Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran has cooperated fully with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors although a week-old IAEA report says that Tehran has stonewalled the agency's probe into whether it's conducted nuclear weapons research.

The Iranian leader, who's questioned Israel's right to exist, also laced his speech with attacks on "Zionists."

"Although they are a miniscule minority, they have been dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers, as well as the political decision-making centers of some European countries and the U.S. in a deceitful, complex and furtive manner," he said.

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 there, 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.

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