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.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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.

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.”

But Kennedy kept learning and looking for ways to be effective.

After British troops killed 14 Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry on Jan. 31, 1972, or “Bloody Sunday,” he contacted local schoolteacher and civil rights activist John Hume, who became a close adviser.

At the urging of Mr. Hume, Kennedy, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, and Gov. Hugh Carey (D) of New York -- the “Four Horsemen” -- appealed to Irish Americans on St. Patrick’s Day 1977 to support dialogue and stop funding arms.

Seventeen years later, also at the urging of Hume, Kennedy convinced President Clinton to grant a US visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. In August 1994, the IRA called a historic ceasefire.

“Once Kennedy began to inform himself of the complexities of that problem, he quickly appreciated, as did his staff, that [immediate British withdrawal] was unworkable,” says Nigel Bowles, director of the American Institute at Oxford University.

“Hume’s view was that what had to emerge was an agreement, a consensus, some means by which Catholics and Protestants could live together on peaceful terms. Kennedy pursued it,” he adds. “His contribution to the course of peace was very important, but he was not alone.”


In his 47 years in the Senate, he used his worldwide name recognition and contacts to build a record as a voice for human rights. In the process, he often clashed with the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

In the 1970s, he led opposition in the Senate to US support for military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, setting new precedents for congressional oversight of the executive branch in foreign policy. Kennedy led opposition in the Senate to the military coup in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, and pushed Congress to halt all US military aid to that country the first time that Congress cut off military aid.

“We were being driven much further on a course of isolating Chile than we thought wise,” wrote Henry Kissinger, commenting on Kennedy’s resolution in his memoir, “Year of Upheaval.” Kennedy said that Washington should have respected the decision of the Chilean people to elect Allende, a socialist.

In 1982, Kennedy joined with Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon to propose a Nuclear Freeze Resolution in a bid to block President Reagan’s Star Wars proposal to expand the nuclear arms race into space. Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz complained that the Soviets seemed to be communicating with the Reagan White House via an aide to Senator Kennedy.

“I trusted Kennedy but was apprehensive: I was leery of back-channel communications,” Schultz writes in his memoir, “Turmoil and Triumph.”

In 1984, Kennedy introduced the Anti-Apartheid Act to impose sanctions on the South African government. In a bid to preempt legislation, President Reagan imposed his own sanctions on Sept. 9, 1985 a move seen at the time as a major shift for the conservative president.


Kennedy often said that the best vote he cast in the US Senate in his 47 years of service was his vote against the war in Iraq.

Kennedy had joined the entire US Congress, with the lone exception of Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, to vote to authorize President Bush to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The need to defeat al Qaeda was urgent and undeniable, he said.

But a year later, he broke with President Bush and most congressional Democrat leaders to oppose the use of force in Iraq.

American should not go to war in Iraq “unless all other reasonable alternatives are exhausted,” he said in an address at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on Sept. 27, 2002 a week before the Senate’s war vote.

“Kennedy was proud of his vote on Iraq one of the most important in his career,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “He didn’t just vote against the war because he votes against all wars, but because he weighed the evidence on both sides. He thought he had done a very good job of studying the issue and he’s been largely vindicated by events.”
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