By Bryan Bender and Sasha Issenberg, Globe staff
ST.PAUL _ Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin got her first passport in 2006 and has visited just four countries, and she had little involvement in her state's cross-border issues, raising questions about her supporters' assertions that Alaska's proximity to Russia has given her unique experience on foreign affairs.
In seeking to demonstrate the first-term Alaska governor's readiness to be John McCain's second-in-command, campaign officials have maintained that Palin has had to deal with a range of security challenges and diplomatic and trade issues.
However, a review of Palin's 20 months in office shows that aside from overseeing the National Guard's state-level emergency missions, as all governors do, the first-term governor played no role in any territorial defense or other national defense operations involving military forces. In an interview with the Globe, the head of the Alaska National Guard said her role commanding the National Guard was no different from that of any other governor.
Palin has also visited one fewer country than originally acknowledged by her Alaska office. Earlier in the week, the governor's Alaska spokeswoman was quoted as saying Palin had traveled to Iraq, Kuwait, Germany, and Ireland, McCain campaign spokeswoman Maria Comella acknowledged yesterday that Ireland was only a refueling stop on a trip in July 2007 to visit Alaskan National Guard troops in Kuwait and Iraq.
Comella said today that the 2007 trip was her only foreign travel apart from visits to Canada. Comella said Palin first received a passport in 2006. The New York Times reported last week that Palin had traveled very little, and had needed to apply for a passport so she could visit the troops.
According to Alaskan officials and Alaska political analysts, Palin has demonstrated little interest in expanding the state's trade ties with neighboring Canada or Russia compared with some of her predecessors.
"So far as I know, Sarah has not been involved in international affairs whatsoever," said Victor Fischer, professor emeritus at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a Democrat and former state senator. "Alaska is a large state, there's a lot going on within the state. We've had governors who have been very involved with world issues, but she's concentrated pretty much on the domestic side."
Palin's knowledge of international affairs and security issues is likely to be tested when she debates her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Comella said yesterday she had been huddling with the campaign's top foreign policy and national security aides this week to study the issues.
One line of attack for Democrats is likely to be McCain's contention that being head of the Alaska National Guard gives her special experience in national security matters.
"She's been commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard," McCain said in a refrain repeated often by GOP leaders this week. "I am proud of her knowledge."
McCain's wife Cindy, meanwhile, has cited the specter of neighboring Russia as preparing her for the vice presidency. "Remember that Alaska is the closest part of our continent to Russia," she said this week in an appearance on ABC News on Sunday.
Due to its strategic location, Alaska has a large number of military installations established during the Cold War to keep watch on Russia, including Elmendorf Air Force Base, home of the Air Force's 3rd Wing, and Forts Wainwright and Richardson, where active-duty Army units are stationed for operations in the Pacific. The Aleutian Islands chain that runs southwest toward the Russian coast is also home to sensitive radar installations.
But those units are under the control of the president, not the state governor, according to top military officials and specialists.
And while the Alaska National Guard operates a launch site for a US anti-missile system at Fort Greely, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks, the Alaskan governor is not in the site's chain of command and has no authority over its operations, according to Maj. Gen. Craig E. Campbell, the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard who commands the roughly 3,800 state militia members.
"Our National Guard is basically just like any National Guard," Campbell, a native of Springfield, Mass., said by telephone. "You could call [Adjutant General] Joe Carter in Massachusetts and he would say he is organized the same way."
Nor are the recent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan by the Alaska National Guard under Palin's purview, despite assertions this week by McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds to that effect. "She is head of the National Guard that has been deployed overseas," Bounds said. "That's foreign policy experience,"
Campbell also said that Palin has authority over the National Guard's domestic missions -- such as fighting wildfires and rescuing stranded residents, but that she has a limited role in determining how the forces are trained or equipped.
About 75 percent of the Guard's budget, he said, is the purview of the National Guard Bureau in Washington, which is responsible for ensuring the Guard is prepared to be called up by the president in a time of war. Her primary role, he said, is in recruiting National Guard volunteers.
Campbell said he has met with Palin about once a month, but communicates with her by phone and email more frequently. Earlier this week, he noted, she ordered the Air National Guard to fly a planeload of supplies to hurricane victims in the Gulf Coast.
"She is very much engaged in what we are doing and she asks a lot of questions," Campbell said. "Maybe not the most engaged, but definitely engaged. She is very much involved in ensuring that I am recruiting enough people."
"The notion that she is experienced because she is commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard is not going to get you very far," said John Pike, a military specialist at GlobalSecurity.org, a nonpartisan think tank in Alexandria, Virginia. "It's awfully thin."
The McCain campaign has also cited other foreign policy experience, including in the area of trade and energy issues.
"She's got experience in a state which has unique features," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a McCain policy adviser. "It has to address issues in international trade in a way most governors don't."
But Palin has demonstrated limited initiative on such cross-border issues compared to previous governors, according to Alaskans who deal with cross-border trade. Among her predecessors, Walter Hickel, a Republican first elected in the 1960s, proposed a "Multi-Modal Transport Corridor" across the Bering Strait, which he imagined would link the Trans-Siberia Railway to American train lines. Democrat Tony Knowles, whom Palin defeated in 2006, pursued expanded trade opportunities, particularly for Alaskan seafood, with Taiwan during the 1990s.
Russ Howell, director of the American Russia Center in Anchorage, said that while there is much interest in Russia on the part of Alaskan oil-field companies whose expertise is expected to be crucial to future gas-exploration in eastern Russia, Palin has not played a noticeable role.
The center has helped to facilitate contact between business and government leaders on both sides during past gubernatorial administrations.
"I have not heard that Governor Palin has done anything like that and we have had no contact with her about visiting Russian officials," said Howell. "There have been certain governors that have taken in an interest in the Russian Far East, but I don't see that happening under Governor Palin."
Asked to respond to contentions that Palin does not have sufficient foreign policy experience, spokeswoman Comella said: "Governor Palin has the judgment required for these dangerous times and the background as an executive making tough decisions needed to manage large organizations. She oversees responsibility for the National Guard and State Defense Force responsible for responding to state emergencies and has displayed leadership in the energy security discussion."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.