Experts Helping Palin Brush Up on Foreign Policy

By Michael Abramowitz and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 5, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 4 -- Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman is among several national security experts helping brief Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on foreign policy issues as she prepares to hit the campaign trail while cramming for a debate with her Democratic opponent, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), in less than a month, according to officials from Sen. John McCain's campaign.

Lieberman, who was the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee but is now an independent, has helped introduce Palin to officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby. In a meeting Tuesday, the day before she delivered her prime-time address at the Republican National Convention here, Palin assured the group of her strong support for Israel, of her desire to see the United States move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and of her opposition to Iran's aspirations to become a nuclear power, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

The exchange offered a brief glimpse into the views of the one-term governor of Alaska, who has virtually no record on foreign policy and has not traveled extensively outside the United States. As governor, she made two foreign trips last summer, one of which was to Canada. On the second, sponsored by the Pentagon, she traveled to Kuwait and Germany -- and made a short stop at a "military outpost" in Iraq -- to visit members of the Alaska National Guard deployed there, according to Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella. Comella added that Palin may have visited Mexico on a personal trip.

Campaign officials and McCain foreign policy advisers called Palin a quick study who has sound judgment that will serve her in good stead on national security issues. But privately, some in the GOP foreign policy establishment voiced concern that McCain has turned to a relative neophyte on national security matters at a time when the United States is facing challenges ranging from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea.

"Her speech wowed the pro-family and anti-tax groups, but can she handle complex foreign and defense policy decision-making?" asked one leading conservative foreign policy thinker who is concerned. He spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be publicly critical of the pick.

Democrats offered a more scathing assessment. "As much as Joe Lieberman might be trying to give her an information dump on what he knows, he can't infuse her with the expertise that she's sorely lacking," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) said in an interview, adding that vice presidents often serve as foreign emissaries during international crises. "The problem with her lack of foreign policy experience is she's running with a man who's 72 years old and, God forbid something happens to him, it's frightening because this is someone who would have the tiller of America's foreign policy."

Noting that the vice president sits on the National Security Council, Wasserman Schultz added: "What advice could Palin possibly offer McCain? There might as well be an empty seat at the table."

Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has avoided attacks on Palin's credentials. "I think she's formidable. She has a great story. She has a great family," Biden said on NBC's "Today Show" on Thursday.

Campaign advisers and other surrogates sought to tamp down concerns about her experience. "Sarah Palin will be part of a team. John McCain is clearly the person with the foreign policy experience and record of accomplishment in Washington that will be paired with her experience as a reformer, as a governor, as an executive," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors. "Together, they will be a very strong and compelling team. But let's not forget, he is the president and she is the vice president. And on the Democratic side, you have a nominee who is of so little experience in foreign affairs, domestic affairs, of any affairs, that I wonder how it happened."

The McCain campaign has tapped Stephen E. Biegun, the national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), to be Palin's principal foreign policy adviser. Campaign aides said Biegun, who is currently a vice president of Ford, is not serving as Palin's tutor but is merely briefing her on details of key issues in a way that is similar to what other candidates are receiving.

"The attempt is not to turn her into a professor of foreign policy but trying to get her up to speed on all the nuances of foreign policy issues that are hot and John's positions," said John Lehman, a former Navy secretary who is one of McCain's advisers. "She's surprised everybody at how current she is on Middle East issues. She doesn't pretend to be a foreign policy expert, but neither is she somebody who hasn't thought about the issues."

As a first-term governor, Palin has not delved into foreign policy in great detail, and she has made only passing references to the subject since her selection. On occasion, she has cast her focus on energy in the context of international affairs. As Alaska's governor, she has spent more time on oil and drilling issues.

"I am thankful for the foundation I have with energy to allow us to become dependent less and less on foreign energy sources -- those sources of course being controlled in some cases by very dangerous, volatile regimes," she said at a Republican Governors Association lunch Thursday. "This is all about energy independence and all about national security."

As an example of Palin's international credentials, the McCain campaign on Thursday provided a list of 15 foreign trade representatives she has met with as governor, including officials from China, Thailand, Norway and Seychelles.

Palin has spoken about Iraq in terms of both policy and her personal connection to the war. During her acceptance speech Wednesday night, she mentioned that not only is her 19-year-old son, Track, headed to Iraq next week with his Army infantry unit, her nephew Kasey is now serving on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

"I'm just one of many moms who'll say an extra prayer each night for our sons and daughters going into harm's way," she told the convention crowd. But she also mocked Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in her speech for his policy on the war, saying he would undermine the gains the United States has made in the Middle East.

"Victory in Iraq is finally in sight; he wants to forfeit," she said. "Terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay; he wants to meet them without preconditions."

As recently as March 2007, however, Palin indicated that she was not immersed in the details of America's war effort. In an interview with Alaska Business Monthly, she said: "I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq. I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president . . . I want to know that we have an exit plan in place."

One of Palin's few meetings this week with outside groups was with AIPAC, a sign of how politically important it is for the GOP ticket to demonstrate its support of Israel. "We had a good, productive discussion on the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and we were pleased that Governor Palin expressed her deep, personal commitment to the safety and well-being of Israel," AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said. "She also expressed her support for the special friendship between the two democracies and said she would work to strengthen the ties between the United States and Israel."

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