Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
In the midst of President Barack Obama’s intense deliberations in 2009 over the way forward in Afghanistan, I got an unexpected call.
“David?” came the familiar, gravelly voice of one of America’s most celebrated military leaders. “It’s Colin Powell.”
Obama was engaged in intensive deliberations over the strategy in Afghanistan. He had been considering a recommendation from his military commanders to send 40,000 more troops to the country, where the United States had already been at war for eight years. And the Pentagon was using every tool at its disposal to win its case.
As a senior adviser to the President, I was a witness to this taut drama, which played out through nine fateful meetings in the Situation Room that fall and countless strategic leaks meant to corner the new President.
“I’ve been watching this unfold and I’m concerned,” General Powell told me. “Don’t let him get pushed into this decision.” Few spoke with greater insight or authority. As chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell led the military to victory in the first Gulf War in 1990. A decade later, as Secretary of State, he famously made the case to the world for an invasion of Iraq based on false intelligence – a failure Powell acknowledged with deep regret.
It gave added weight to his words.
“Just remember that he’s the commander in chief, and they ain’t,” Powell told me. “They want more troops. They’ll always want more troops. History has shown that this is not always the right answer. My advice is that you take your time.”
The old general, who had navigated the rocky shoals of Washington’s national security battles for a lifetime, then offered me a sherpa’s view of the characters surrounding Obama as he considered his decision.
One was Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary for the final years of the Bush administration, during which he had overseen a massive surge of troops there. Obama had prevailed on Gates to stay on and now he was urging a similar strategy in Iraq.
“I’ve known Bob Gates for 30 years and I respect him,” Powell told me. “But just remember this. Iraq was Bush’s war, not his. And Afghanistan will be Obama’s war, not Bob’s.” The message was clear. The decision was the President’s and his alone.
I thought about Powell and that call with the announcement of his passing Monday. His death came less than two months after the unceremonious withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Partly to keep peace with the military establishment and win its support for a phasedown of troops after the surge, Obama largely accepted the recommendation to send tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan. (One notable dissenter was then-Vice President Joe Biden.)
Powell’s reticence, which I shared with the President, seems so prescient, given subsequent events. Powell was a patriot and perhaps he would have made the same call whoever was president. But I sensed that as the first Black man to lead the joint chiefs and serve as secretary of state, he took an almost filial pride in the first African American President.
The iconic general’s endorsement of the Obama campaign in 2008 was among the most important we would receive. I remember retreating to a motel room on the trail to watch Powell deliver his endorsement on “Meet the Press” late in the campaign. When he spoke the words, I could hear the cheers of campaign aides up and down the corridor. Everyone understood instantly what it meant.
At a moment when Obama’s own patriotism and qualifications were under attack – a precursor to the withering nativism that would unfold over the next decade – Powell’s eloquent imprimatur was a watershed in Obama’s march to victory.
Powell, who many thought might become the barrier-breaking president Obama turned out to be, was among the few people who could fully appreciate the responsibilities and burden of being The First. He understood what it took to defeat malign stereotypes and what it meant to carry with him the hopes and dreams of millions, who saw themselves and their children in his example.
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Even as we no longer can benefit from his wisdom, his example lives on, an inspiration to future generations.
Rest in peace, General. I will be forever grateful for the call.