John Duncan’s ‘Told You So’ Moment

Representative John Duncan of Tennessee can still remember being hauled into the George W. Bush White House when “they found out I was leaning against it.”

The day before, the Washington Post had run a story on the front page estimating the cost of war in Iraq at $200-300 billion, Duncan recalls, but Condeleeza Rice assured him it would only cost $50-60 billion, and that most of that would be recouped as allies paid their share.

Rice and George Tenet also played up the threats, just like he remembered from the first Gulf War, during which he was also in Congress. Then, top military brass had gravely warned about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s “elite troops.”

“Then I saw those same elite troops surrendering to CNN camera crews and empty tanks,” Duncan says. Despite the browbeating at the White House, Duncan stuck to his guns and voted “no.” Six House Republicans and one GOP senator voted no, but Duncan is the only one still in Congress.

It wasn’t popular back home – at all. Two years after the vote, Duncan was slated to deliver a sermon at a Baptist church in his district. But the Monday before the service, an embarrassed minister called to cancel, explaining that his main deacon had threatened to leave the church.

But a funny thing happened as “$50-60 billion” turned slowly into trillions and the wars dragged on. “For three or four years it very unpopular but then slowly, slowly, it turned into one of the most popular votes I ever cast,” Duncan says.

Now, with a debate over whether to intervene in Syria underway, Dunacn is inundated with pleas from his constituents to vote no. Over about two days, he received 720 phone calls and e-mails, of which exactly six were in support of intervening. Dunan’s chief of staff said that in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building, he overheard a conversation between two staffers who had been completely blindsided by the uproar they were hearing from constituents. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” one of the aides said.

“There’s a real strong feeling in the country that these wars have just cost us so much money that we don’t have. I think the newer people – you know, 42 percent of the House is new just in the last two elections – so you’ve got people who have been out there campaigning and I think they have a pretty good idea of how upset the people have been about the trillions that have been spent and will be spent on Iraq and Afghanistan. People are just fed up with it. There’s a strong feeling that we need to start taking care of our own country and our own people,” Duncan says.

But despite all the signs that the Syria push is faltering, Duncan thinks Obama will prevail.

“Most of the top leadership, they want to be seen as world statesmen, and most of the national media is strongly in favor of an interventionist foreign policy and certainly all of your foreign-policy elitists are in favor of an interventionist foreign policy. So if you go against that, the first thing they say is that you’re an ‘isolationist’ and nobody wants to be called an ‘isolationist.’ I always tell people I’m for trade and tourism and cultural-education exchanges and to help out in humanitarian crises but we just shouldn’t be so eager to go to war,” he says.  

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