by Anthony Harwood

There is a video of Joe Biden, banging on the table and almost spitting venom as he calls out a “repulsive and repugnant regime”.

The young senator tears into the Republican government for the spineless way it deals with a hated foreign state.

“I’m ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this that says nothing. It says: ‘Continue the same, we put no timetable on it. We make no specific demand.’ I’m ashamed there’s no moral backbone to this policy”.

The hated regime is South Africa during the apartheid era but there is a sense in which his words could apply to Saudi Arabia today.

In 1986 Biden had the look of a firebrand senator, going toe-to-toe with US Secretary of State George Shultz over the Reagan Administration’s soft treatment of the Afrikaner government.

Shultz refused to be chastened but Biden continued with his tirade, accusing him of compliance with the apartheid regime because of the US policy not to intervene.

“They’ve tried everything for the last 20 years”, said the future president of the country’s downtrodden black population “They’ve begged, they’ve borrowed, they’ve crawled and now they’re taking up arms.

“Maybe it’s because I come from the Civil Rights Movement in this country, we heard the same kind of arguments. ‘We cannot impose from the north a solution on the south. They must work out their problems black and white together’ ”.

Today President Biden is 35 years older, holding the most powerful office in the world.

Last week his administration released a US intelligence assessment which found that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had approved a mission to either capture or kill Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist working for the Washington Post who had been highly critical of his policies.

Donald Trump – never one to bother with an issue like human rights - had blocked the report’s release for fear of upsetting the Saudis, with whom he had signed a $350bn arms deal on his very first overseas trip.

It’s not hard to imagine how the young Senator Biden might have reacted.

He would have been four-square behind some of today’s senators, like Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) who called on the White House to “take concrete measures holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for his role in this heinous crime”.

After all, an American citizen had been lured to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and with the blessing of the country’s ruler set upon by a 15-member hit squad and brutally murdered.

There had then been an attempt at a cover-up, complete with a lookalike of the victim being captured on CCTV leaving the building wearing the victim’s ill-fitting clothes in a laughable attempt to throw everyone off the scent.

The Saudi authorities, of course, hadn’t reckoned on their consulate being bugged by Turkish intelligence who later released audio of Khashoggi being strangled soon after he arrived and his body cut up by a forensic expert while listening to music on his headphones.

But what would the older, and hopefully wiser, President Biden do when confronted with MBS’s appalling guilt?

Would he stay true to his youthful ideals, or would he do Shultz?

The sad truth is that having done the right thing by declassifying the intelligence report that Trump had covered up, the president has bottled it.

If you are going to hold the killers of Khashoggi accountable, and be seen to do so, you have to target the man at the top and not just his underlings, as Biden has done.

He would say that realpolitik decrees that when you assume power lofty ideals you once espoused – and repeated on the campaign trail - go out the window because of the pressure to keep alliances going.

For one, Biden needs the Saudis onside if he is going to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

During that 1986 encounter he had criticised Shultz for saying: ‘We must not become part of South Africa’s problem, we must remain part of their solution.”

But by letting MBS off the hook, Biden doing exactly what Shultz did before him, failing to punish a leader’s crimes for the sake of keeping alliances going.

Demonstrating just how easily politicians can change when they reach high office, Biden has imposed no travel bans, no asset freezes, no criminal charges and no sanctions on MBS.

His press secretary, Jen Psaki, explained: ‘We believe there are more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also leave room to work with the Saudis in areas where there is mutual agreement, where there is national interest for the United States. That is what diplomacy looks like”.

So, there you have it – not even the most notorious killing ordered by a head of state in living memory is enough to upset the apple cart of diplomacy.

MBS has got away with murder and the young Democratic senator from Delaware has his head in his hands.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail