When Joe Biden Loved Defying the President's Foreign Policy

Back in 1986, the then-senator led the charge against Ronald Reagan's treatment of South Africa


Biden's senatorial deference. |||

As Ed Krayewski pointed out earlier, Vice President Joe Biden is steaming mad that 47 GOP senators sent a letter to the leaders of Iran constitutionally mansplaining the differences between an executive branch-only agreement with another country and one ratified by Congress. The letter, Biden charged, is "expressly designed to undercut a sitting President in the midst of sensitive international negotiations," and "beneath the dignity of an institution I revere." It also "threatens to undermine the ability of any future American President, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States."

You would think from the tenor of his criticism that Biden had been deferential to presidential prerogatives on foreign policy during his many decades in the United States Senate. And you would be dead wrong.

On July 22, 1986, after a season of nationwide anti-apartheid protests on college campuses and serial debate over economic sanctions in Washington, Reagan gave a speech that both condemned South Africa's institutional racism ("Apartheid must be dismantled," was one of many such quotes), and rejected sanctions as "immoral and utterly repugnant" because they would hurt the people most in need of help. The next day, Secretary of State George Shulz testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Subsequent newspaper accounts of the ensuing verbal carnage would be given headlines such as "Shultz couldn't duck 'Fiery Joe' Biden."

I can't find video of Sen. Biden's table-pounding performance, but here are some quotes as recorded by the political journalist Jules Witcover:

"We ask them to put up a timetable," he thundered, waiving a fist. "What is our timetable? Where do we stand morally? I hate to hear an administration and a secretary of state refusing to act on a morally abhorrent point. I'm ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this that says nothing, nothing. I'm ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy."

More reported quotes from the harangue here and here. The New York Times used the occasion of Biden's angry foreign-policy dissent to write a feature on how the Delawarian "has emerged as an aggressive presence on the Washington stage." Excerpt:

As a result of all this, Democratic activists and analysts say Mr. Biden has gained heightened recognition as a possible Presidential contender. […]

Biden bristles at the suggestion of political motives for his confrontation with Mr. Shultz. In fact, he says, his political advisers argued that he was "too hot" in the exchange. "And I told them what I'm telling you," he added: "There are certain things worth getting mad about."


The next month, the Senate passed The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 over the objection of President Reagan, who said that it intruded on his prerogatives to conduct foreign policy (sound familiar?). When the Senate overrode Reagan's subsequent veto, it marked the first time a sitting president had been so rebuked on foreign policy by Congress in the entire span of the 20th century.

Biden's central role in the revolt against Reagan's foreign policy is still remembered fondly among some Democrats; here's a Daily Kos post from 2012 partly titled "26 Years Later: Why I Will Always Love Joe Biden."

So which Biden was right? Set aside for the moment the policy question of whether sanctions are ever appropriate (for what it's worth, in the literature about the effectiveness of economic sanctions, the anti-apartheid action is seen as the one exception to the general rule that they do not produce the intended effect, and instead bolster the regimes they intend to undermine). As a basic principle, I think presidents should be defied by Congress more often, and that Congress should play a much more vigorous role in the oversight of diplomacy and the waging of war.

It's a damn dirty shame that such impertinence flashes mostly in the waning days of weakened second-term presidencies; that major-party politicians are as a default grotesquely hypocritical on the separation of powers, and that GOP ringleader Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) believes that U.S. policy toward Iran should be pre-emptive war followed by "replacement with pro-western regime." But, as ever, we live in a fallen world.

UPDATE: Click the link to read House Democrats' 1984 letter to Daniel Ortega, address to "Dear Comandante."

NEXT: NSA Spies on Wikipedia Users. Now It's Lawsuit Time.

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  1. As a result of all this, Democratic activists and analysts say Mr. Biden has gained heightened recognition as a possible Presidential contender.

    Forty-seven GOP presidential hopefuls next year? Sweet!

    1. ROFLMAO. Even most democrats now think of Joe Biden as “the crazy old man”. Not going to happen.

    2. Joe Biden/Matt Damon

      1. MATT DAMON!

    3. Can we talk about the inanity of how raising your voice and pounding a table in a senate hearing gains one “heightened recognition as a possible Presidential contender?”

  2. So even back then, Joe was fightin’ to keep them Rethuglicans from puttin’ ya’ll back in chains?


    1. Gore and crazy Joe are good examples of how insane the Democratic Party went in the late 1990s and 00s. Back in the dark ages of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, they were both fairly reasonable guys. They both as some point realized the party was only buying crazy and changed accordingly.

      1. Yeah. These monkeys make Daniel Patrick Moynihan look like John Birch.

  3. The answer is the first Biden. I understand the worries about under cutting national interests abroad. Indeed, loud mouthed Congress creatures of both parties have been known to do that. Even this that is not good, shutting down debate and criticism of the President’s foreign policy is worse. Both sides use the “but politics is supposed to stop at the water line” tactic. And the purpose of using it is always to keep from debating and defending their President’s foreign policy. That is not how it should work.

  4. Nice point, Matt. I would add that a majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted to override Reagan’s veto. No Democrat signed Cotton’s letter. So the anti-apartheid thing was a bit more bipartisan. The fact that Reagan was shamelessly in the tank for the apartheid regime is also worth noting. Among other things, he “famously” insisted that South Africa had “stood beside us in all our wars.”

    1. That would be the truth you half wit. And South Africa gave us a lot of help fighting communism in Africa. It is no coincidence that Apartheid finally fell right after the fall of the eastern block rendered their services in fighting communism no longer needed.

      And no amount of defending South Africa could even approach the Democratic apologetic for various communist countries around the world. All of the oppression and murder associated with South Africa and Chile, the other country the Left soothed is conscience by complaining about, are a thimble compared to the ocean of murder and enslavement that occurred under communism. You know, that ideology the Left excoriated Reagan for calling evil and spent 50 years of the Cold War claiming was morally equivalent to the capitalist West.

      1. So your response to Alan is:

        1. It really was ok to support this horrendous regime because they did help us in the Cold War
        2. You too, liberal!

        1. Yes, it was okay to support a horrible regime because it was the best alternative available. And to the extent that Reagan can be criticized for making that choice, the left forfeited any right to demand purity by their appalling apologetics for much worse communist regimes imaginable.

          It is a very simple answer. It of course went right over your head most likely because it is the truth and the truth seems to do that to you for some reason.

          1. “the left forfeited any right to demand purity by their appalling apologetics for much worse communist regimes imaginable.”

            So it’s a ‘you too’ merged with a ‘two wrongs make a right’

            1. But Reagan wasn’t wrong. He was right. He made the best of two available bad options. The only criticism of him is that he didn’t put purity above US interests. The problem is the Left can’t accuse him of that since they didn’t either. They were happy to apologize for much worse regimes in the name of the ideology.

              Again, it’s a simple point and one you seem unable to grasp.

      2. Thank God those racists helped fight Communism allowing the years of peace and prosperity in Africa. How would we have Muslim fundamentalists running rampant if they had taken up secular atheist Marxism ?

    2. The South Africans were fighting a proxy-war for us against Communist Cuban forces in Namibia and Angola in the 80’s. Reagan was right to call them out for the Apartheid policies while not sanctioning them.

      1. You have to remember, Venneman thinks the Cubans were the good guys. So to him that makes Reagan and South Africa even worse.

    3. Yeah and how is that working out for them? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t approve of government enforced segregation or bigotry but South Africa has turned from one of the most prosperous and safe countries in Africa to a crime infested, third world dump. Alot of the people in power in South Africa have sympathies with racial policies that benefit only them and the socialism that seemed to side with them, the downtrodden when Apartheid was around. That is a recipe for disaster right there and Reagan is right, even though he didn’t practice it all the time, sanctions only harm the downtrodden and not the leaders. I am frankly of the opinion you don’t sanction anybody, that is another way of meddling. I am for complete and utter free trade, not fake, crony capitalist, managed NAFTA trade, so I am against embargoes and sanctions altogether.

  5. I actually support Congress being a LOT more involved in foreign policy, and sending all kinds of communications to other countries etc. etc. etc. This idea that somehow “foreign policy is the President’s alone” is fucking retarded, ahistorical and wrong.

    The very idea that a President could make a nuke agreement without Congress’ say so – absurd.

    But these are the times we live in. We’re fucking doomed. I’m just having a REALLY hard time watching it happen before my eyes.

    1. Our system is supposed to have checks on power all over the place, particularly on the executive.

      1. Oh, you little darling – you still have hope, don’t you ProL?

        *hugs ProL – but in manly fashion – no homo…NTTAWWT…*

          1. C’mon, you know that hug made you feel better. Its alright – we’re friends here, you can admit it.

      2. Very true. I just wonder if they think politically and in terms of actually acheiving their objective that an end around is better than directly going at Obama. Not that they would necessarily be right.

        1. Things are so screwed up now that I’m happy with any assertion of independence, within limits.

    2. I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t think they should be sending communiques or negotiating agreements and such. The President is really the national representative in those matters. People have a right to object to Congress directly going out and undercutting the President. The problem is that they take that legitimate criticism and turn it into a justification for Congress to do or say nothing on foreign policy.

      Congress should absolutely be criticizing or voicing its concerns about what the President is saying and doing. And it of course should refuse to consent to any treaties it doesn’t like or fund any action it objects to or place legal prohibition on the President doing things it disproves.

      A good example of how it should work is what Congress did banning funding of the Contras. I think that was a horrible and misguided policy, but it was their right to do it and they did it in the right way. The wrong way was to have Jim Wright down playing footsie with Daniel Ortega. The right way was to put it in law that Reagan couldn’t fund them. And when the administration ignored that, they paid a hell of a political price.

      1. You wouldn’t go that far – I would. Viva la difference!

      2. I actually agree with John here. Passing a law would be better form and it might actually be, you know, something more than symbolic.

        1. The problem is that no Democrat will ever vote to override Obama’s veto and Obama will veto anything that doesn’t give him exactly what he wants. So that is effectively a dead letter. When you have a President who both doesn’t care and faces no sanction for defying Congress, your separation of powers quickly breaks down.

          1. They could hold a press conference and announce that they don’t intend to ratify any subsequent treaty until they’re input is taken more seriously.

            1. wouldn’t that really just set them up for another Obama bitchslap?

              1. I think they did this precisely to avoid any appearance of helplessness. They want to stop any overreach by President Overreach, and this is the only way to do it. Looking like they’re just making noise by issuing a statement or passing a bill that gets vetoed doesn’t have the same effect.

                No applauding Congress on this, but I think it’s high time this president gets forcibly reminded about checks and balances.

  6. So crazy Joe put on some political theater 29 years because it fit right in his wheelhouse:

    1. Against a Republican President – check

    2. Helped a Communist enemy – check

    3. Required no real work on his part and appealed to the unthinking masses – check

    What does Joe think of South Africa today? Everything’s great now, right?

    1. “What does Joe think of South Africa today?”

      I know, right, they should have held on to apartheid to keep the black crime rate down, amiright?

      1. You’ll have to ask Joe, he seemed to have all the answers Maybe he hoped the Cubans would win and turn it into a Socialist paradise.

      2. The homicide rate in South Africa today, while still high, is less than half of what it was when apartheid ended.

        1. Interesting. Got a link?

          1. This shows homicide data by year, starting with 1994-95 (the end of apartheid and beginning of the post-apartheid era) and ending with 2010-11.


            This shows data from 1938-2003. There was a big increase in the homicide rate in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. It had started to decline for several years by the time the data cuts off, and as you can see from the first link, has continued to decrease (though it’s still pretty high obviously).


  7. None dare call it TREASON!

    Oh, wait….…..-1.2143825

    1. it is astounding how up is down with these people. Obama is trying to sell out the country’s interests by making a deal but it is the Republicans trying to stop him who are the “traitors”.

      Just exactly what is treasonous about objecting to a deal with the Iranians? Moreover, what is treasonous about informing the Iranians that any deal they sign with the Chocolate Nixon is DOA in the Senate and will never bind any future President? I would think we would want the Iranians to know that so they don’t sign a deal and then are shocked when the Senate refuses to ratify it and the next President renounces it.

      1. “Obama is trying to sell out the country’s interests”

        Which country?

        1. It sure as hell isn’t Iran’s that is for sure. And I am not Jewish, so I am afraid your usual fifth column nonsense doesn’t apply to me.

          1. Let me guess John, it would be in our interest to go to war! It’s your go-to answer in these WMD situations it seems…

            1. Yeah, because objecting signing an agreement that gives them everything they want means you want to go to war.

              Thanks for admitting you just lost the argument. Moreover, wasn’t the position that the sanctions and containment would work? Now apparently supporting such makes one a war monger.

      2. I’m not thrilled with this sort of in-fighting in front of foreign governments, but, at the end of the day, the branches need to assert their prerogatives more often, not less. If it makes us more difficult to deal with politically, so be it.

        1. I do agree that it would be nice if the branches could get their shit together enough to show a united front. We manage to do that with the union at work – so I know it can be done with politicians, cause union reps gotta get elected…

          1. The problem is that both sides are supposed to get a voice. The way it should work is the President respects Congress enough to work with them privately and smooth things over and compromise enough so that this kind of shit doesn’t happen. That would however require a competent President who gave a shit about the country and cared about something more than himself and his self perceived “legacy”. It would require more statesmanship than “I won”. Our current President is not up to the job and after six years shows no aptitude for learning.

            1. I agree. Ideally, this sort of in-fighting occurs behind the scenes, though it’s impossible to keep that totally under wraps.

              Frankly, Obama’s authoritarianism is coming to roost, and an opposition Congress is doing something, for once, to oppose that.

              1. That is the other thing, this is 47 Senators. There have always been a few people on both sides willing to grand stand to make a name for themselves. That sort of thing is inevitable. When the President manages to alienate 47 Senators to this degree, that is entirely a failure on his part.

                The media of course will say this just shows who impossible the Republicans are to work with. The reality of course is the number is so large that it shows how grossly incompetent Obama is at the basic tasks of being President.

                1. Nice try!
                  You lost the election get over it.
                  Obama is President for 2 more years, and he’s a hell of a lot better the Bush or Reagan were!

            2. ^THIS

              It really is stunning to realize how unprepared Obama was to become president.

              Most people who have dealt with big organizations and committees learn early on that they won’t get everything that they want. They also realize that the only way to get people to buy into the final solution is to get input from all the stake holders. Even the ones that don’t agree with you.

              I 100% agree that coming up with a big policy in a committee meeting can be frustrating beyond belief, but the idea that you can simply impose a big policy and have people follow it without their input is crazy.

              1. You know who else wanted people to buy into the final solution?

                1. Alex Trebek?

                  Oh wait, that was a final answer

                  1. Or is that Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

        2. I do agree that it would be nice if the branches could get their shit together enough to show a united front. We manage to do that with the union at work – so I know it can be done with politicians, cause union reps gotta get elected…

          1. That would require:

            1. A President and staff who could be bothered to brief members of Congress on their plans.

            2. No shitheads like Joe who want a chance to showboat even after he’s been briefed.

            1. I guess you forgot GW Bush’s line, ‘elections have consequences’!

        3. Actually no, the Republicans need to follow the law of the land they say they love, but do everything to destroy !
          The law its the Presidents job to negotiate with foreign countries, Congress and the Senate can debate inside our borders!

      3. Also, I seem to remember a few weeks ago, how it was so “uncivil”, even RACIST! (nach) to impute the patriotism of a political opponent.
        I’m glad we all got over that.

        1. Absurd levels of hypocrisy are like a job requirement now.

        2. It was more than that. Anyone who wasn’t willing to publicly affirm the patriotism of the President was a racist and unfit for high office. Today, it is totally fine, however, to accuse 47 members of the Senate of treason.

          1. Hey, that’s a great idea. The president indicts and prosecutes half the Senate; the House impeaches and removes him.

            1. Classic win/win!

      4. What a bizarre strange statement!
        My first response was are you off your meds.?
        All Obama has done for 6 years is try to fix the mess the Republicans got this country into with lying us into war, and wasting trillions of dollars that were never budgeted to be paid until Obama became President!
        Did you know Rumsfeld under Bush admitted to Congress the Pentagon ‘lost’ over 600 million dollars in cash in Iraq!
        I understand you reluctance to admit you were wrong about Bush/Cheney, but the Republican party is no different then the corporate greedy shits during the Reagan years who raised taxes on the middle class 11 times to pay for tax breaks for their rich friends!
        Did you forget the rich paid over 70% in taxes at the beginning of Reagan’s term (we had no deficit, no debt), and in the 30’s when he left office(we had debt and deficit)!
        Wake up, or get back on your meds.!

    2. Hmm…

      But when Nancy Pelosi went to Syria to do some foreign policy work it was OK.…..02752.html

      DAMASCUS — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi challenged the White House on Middle East policy yesterday, meeting with Syria’s leader and insisting “the road to Damascus is a road to peace.”….._to_peace/

      It really is principals over principles.

      1. “the road to Damascus is a road to peace.”

        That sure worked out well. I think ISIS is working off the same policy?

      2. When Senators or Congress members go to foreign countries they do not represent the US, they only represent their district, or state.
        The letter to Iran was representing the US Government, and that’s the President’s job! There are laws making that illegal.

    3. Yeah, my Progbook lit up at lunch with links to this article, with bonus whiny comments. Blech.

  8. Isn’t the difference going to the leaders of the other country directly (though I’d note that there seem to be comparable situations engaged in by Congresses in the past)?

    1. Gosh, and here I thought that giving a speech before Congress was in no way negotiating a treaty or agreement with Congress.

  9. Mansplaining? Ouch:)

  10. How the hell is it possible to “revere” the Senate? I don’t think I’d even be able to muster the respect to wipe my shoes before walking in there.

    1. I would Revere them in the sense I would ride along ahead and warn people they were coming.

      1. So they could form up in a firing line?

  11. I’m looking at that picture and I think Biden has more hair on his head *now* than he did then.

  12. Not sure of exactly the dates, but Joe’s Courageous Stand Against Apartheid may have happened before he suffered brain damage from his stroke(s).

    I fund Crazy/Creepy Uncle Joe much easier to understand once you remember he’s actually, no-kidding brain-damaged.

    1. Joe’s courageous stand against apartheid was legal, the Republican letter to Iran wasn’t!
      Simple enough for you!

  13. threatens to undermine the ability of any future American President, whether Democrat or Republican, to negotiate with other nations on behalf of the United States.”

    Hmm, maybe, just maybe Joe, the branch of government actually charged with treaty-making should be the ones doing the negotiating of treaties?

    1. The Senate is not charged with negotiating treaties.

  14. Last time I looked, the Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War, to name but a few instances of congressional interference in foreign policy.

    More than a few people do go on about the importance of Congress declaring war before the president deploys troops overseas.

    1. Thee idea is Congress has a right to vote on any policy the President brings to them, plus they can vote on policy the President doesn’t bring to them, but its against Federal Law for them to intrude into the powers of the Presidency when the President is doing something he has the right to do!

  15. This is not even remotely comparable. Certainly the Congress has an important role to play in defining the nation’s foreign policy. That role does NOT include sending an open letter to an adversarial nation with the express purpose of undercutting a sitting president and announcing that the United States should not be trusted to negotiate in good faith. It is hard to overstate how damaging this must be to our international credibility.

  16. Fuck the Daily Kos. Fuck the sheep that read that garbage. And fuck “lyin’ Joe Biden”, fucking hypocrite, they should add “hypocrite” as a term under the word “politician” in the dictionary.

    1. Quite intelligent aren’t you!

  17. First of all Reagan violated Federal Law on Iran Contra, and could have been impeached if the Dems. wanted to!
    Second you’re comparing a letter sent to a foreign government by Republicans while the President is doing what he was elected to do to the debate our government, both Dems. and Repubs. always do inside our country!
    Your article to be kind is dumb?

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