Sarah Palin took a hard line on Russia and Iran on Thursday as she fielded questions on foreign affairs for the first time since Republican presidential candidate John McCain named her his running mate two weeks ago.
The Alaska governor also reversed her stand on the cause of climate change, telling ABC News that she believes “man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming.” Less than a year ago, she said the opposite.
By turns tense and combative, Palin, 44, used two interviews with ABC anchor Charles Gibson to display her grasp of issues central to the vice presidency.
She acknowledged that, other than a trip last year to see troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Germany, her only visits abroad were to Mexico and Canada. And she said that she had never met a head of state but that she did speak last week with President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia.
The interviews, conducted in and around Fairbanks, Alaska, did not go without a hitch. Palin called the Russian incursion into Georgia last month “unprovoked,” a view at odds with that of U.S. officials who have reviewed events leading up to the military action.
She also appeared stumped when Gibson asked whether she agreed with the Bush Doctrine, which holds that the United States can wage preemptive war against hostile nations.
And Palin, whose critics see her as unqualified for the vice presidency, said she was “thankful that, under Reagan, we won the Cold War.” The Soviet Union collapsed three years after Ronald Reagan left the White House.
The interviews were Palin’s first since she spoke with People magazine on the day McCain put her on the Republican ticket. Top McCain advisors -- including chief strategist Steve Schmidt -- traveled with Palin to Alaska on Wednesday to brief her for the two Gibson interviews on Thursday and one today.
Palin has proved a powerful asset for McCain, giving him a sudden boost in the polls, and advisors were determined to avert any misstep that could change those dynamics.
Palin’s shift on global warming aligns her more closely with McCain, who has long believed that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change. In December, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner quoted her as saying, “I’m not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity.”
Palin, in speaking to ABC, chose her words carefully, saying that “some of man’s activities” could be “potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now.”
As governor, Palin has named an advisory panel to help Alaska adapt to the consequences of climate change, such as melting ice sheets that have changed fish and wildlife migration patterns. But her views on the cause probably have significant bearing on whether, like her running mate, she favors steps to curb carbon emissions that cause global warming. “John McCain and I are going to be working on what we do about it,” she said.
On foreign policy, Palin largely echoed McCain. She said she favored bringing Ukraine and Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for instance -- though Russia would consider such a move a threat to its security. So under the NATO alliance, Gibson asked, would the United States have to go to war in response to a Russian invasion of Georgia?
“Perhaps so,” she responded. “I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help.”
Gibson alluded to McCain’s recent statement that Alaska’s proximity to Russia lent Palin some expertise on that nation, asking Palin to explain.
“They’re our next-door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska -- from an island in Alaska,” she said.
As for Iran, Palin said nuclear weapons under the control of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be “extremely dangerous to everyone on this globe.” She called for a hands-off approach to Israel if it decided to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.
“We cannot second-guess the steps that Israel has to take to defend itself,” she said.
Palin’s interviews took place on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes. McCain and Democratic rival Barack Obama observed the occasion with a rare break in their daily exchange of campaign attacks.
As part of her first Alaska homecoming since McCain introduced her as his running mate, Palin went to an Army base outside Fairbanks on Thursday to attend an Iraq deployment ceremony for a brigade of soldiers, including her 19-year-old son, Track.
In the sit-down with Gibson, she faced questions about statements on the Iraq war that she made at an Assembly of God church that she sometimes attends in her hometown, Wasilla, of which she is a former mayor.
A video shows Palin asking a group to pray that the nation’s leaders were sending troops to Iraq “on a task that is from God.”
Gibson, however, mischaracterized her as simply asserting that the nation’s leaders were sending troops to Iraq on a task from God.
“Are we fighting a holy war?” he asked.
After Palin disputed his characterization, she paraphrased Abraham Lincoln, saying she meant, “Let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God’s side.”
Gibson went on to take a second part of her comments out of context. Palin had asked the group to pray “that there is a plan, and that plan is God’s plan.”
But Gibson dropped her reference to praying -- and instead quoted Palin as saying the war was God’s plan. He asked if she believed the country was sending her son on a task from God.
“I don’t know if the task is from God, Charlie,” she responded, adding that she was proud of Track for “serving something greater than himself.”
Palin’s most visible stumble came when Gibson asked whether she agreed with the Bush Doctrine.
“In what respect, Charlie?” she asked the anchor, who sat directly across from her in a matching upright armchair.
Gibson then asked what she interpreted the Bush Doctrine to be.
“His worldview,” she answered.
Once Gibson explained that the doctrine meant preemptive wars, Palin used the opportunity to take veiled shots at President Bush, whose unpopularity has weighed on McCain’s candidacy.
“I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hellbent on destroying our nation,” she said. “There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made.”
With new leadership “comes opportunity to do things better,” she said.
On the question of whether she was ready to step in as president if needed, Palin said she was. She also said she had not hesitated to accept McCain’s offer to join the ticket.
“I answered him yes, because I have the confidence in that readiness, and knowing that you can’t blink,” she said. “You have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink. So I didn’t blink then, even when asked to run as his running mate.”
Times staff writers Matea Gold, Peter Spiegel and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.
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