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On foreign affairs, Kennedy challenged presidential power

His most important vote, he said, was against the Iraq War. But he also had major impact on human rights and other issues.

By Staff writer / August 28, 2009

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File



While Sen. Edward Kennedy devoted most of his public life to domestic issues, he left a deep and varied legacy as a foreign policy entrepreneur, including historic challenges to presidential power.

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Few senators have had the gravitas outside of the United States to make a difference in foreign policy. The president speaks for the nation, and when a member of Congress or former president sets himself up against the White House, it’s typically an unequal match.

Moreover, for most of his years in the Senate, Kennedy was not a natural partner on foreign policy issues for the incumbents in the White House. Until President Clinton, Democrats saw him as a rival for the presidency. For Republicans, he embodied the liberal foe they had campaigned to defeat.

Yet Kennedy found opportunities -- in a speech, in a visit, in a vote to influence US foreign policy on issues ranging from peace and democracy to human rights. From Ireland and the Soviet Union to South Africa and Latin America, he also developed his own ties to foreign leaders and human rights activists, as tributes from capitals around the world this week confirm.


But for the patriarch of the America’s most celebrated Irish-American family, his role in helping to broker a peace process in Northern Ireland was especially significant.

In Ireland, President Mary McAleese said this week that Kennedy had been a “hugely important friend to the country during very difficult times.” In March, the British government awarded him an honorary knighthood for “services to the British-American relationship and to Northern Ireland.”

His first steps were stumbles. In 1971, Kennedy outraged the British government with a speech on the floor of the US Senate calling on Britain to withdraw troops from Northern Ireland, which he called “Britain’s Vietnam.”

“The tragedy of Ulster is yet another chapter in the unfolding larger tragedy of the Empire -- it is India and Palestine and Cyprus and Africa once again. It is the struggle of men everywhere for the basic rights of freedom and self-determination,” the freshman senator said. British Prime Minister Edward Heath dubbed the speech, “an ignorant outburst.”