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


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."