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David Axelrod: I'll always be grateful for this surprise call from Colin Powell

David Axelrod: I'll always be grateful for this surprise call from Colin Powell

Posted: Oct 18, 2021 6:30 PM
Updated: Oct 18, 2021 6:30 PM

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.

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.

The-CNN-Wire
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Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1524527

Reported Deaths: 20751
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion2077652558
Lake1010411517
Allen946081024
Hamilton73638551
St. Joseph65362761
Elkhart50026632
Vanderburgh48959530
Tippecanoe44411338
Johnson38772527
Hendricks36850462
Porter34709476
Madison29301547
Clark26328328
Vigo25941346
LaPorte23600313
Monroe23478249
Howard22382381
Delaware21877370
Hancock18857220
Bartholomew18433216
Kosciusko18124203
Warrick17207215
Wayne16474303
Floyd16129257
Grant15566299
Morgan14615232
Boone13622138
Noble11983142
Shelby11877152
Dearborn11825113
Henry11771201
Marshall11444171
Dubois11418152
Jackson10772104
Cass10380143
Lawrence10308221
DeKalb10292132
Huntington10277140
Gibson9749126
Montgomery9377144
Knox9162125
Harrison9157117
Whitley886771
Steuben8739105
Jasper8325116
Putnam8306100
Clinton827596
Miami8249135
Jefferson8030127
Wabash7914139
Ripley7278116
Adams6713103
Daviess6661130
Scott663586
White624484
Greene6159112
Clay615275
Decatur6062120
Wells6001120
Jennings600081
Fayette5886122
Posey561648
LaGrange535797
Randolph5171129
Washington511470
Owen5068100
Fountain482580
Spencer457456
Sullivan449866
Starke443986
Fulton440393
Orange435083
Jay419964
Rush418839
Perry397555
Carroll384549
Franklin382850
Vermillion363562
Pike327845
Parke327338
Tipton320675
Blackford275955
Pulaski275375
Newton235461
Brown233556
Benton221521
Crawford220132
Switzerland201414
Martin191822
Warren179522
Union172619
Ohio125216
Unassigned0759

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 2496243

Reported Deaths: 31987
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin2696772100
Cuyahoga2600613087
Hamilton1742641756
Montgomery1162791651
Summit1084961418
Lucas929121193
Butler82981963
Stark766321431
Lorain63976809
Warren52895489
Mahoning50955930
Lake47462611
Clermont46371452
Delaware40674220
Trumbull39527790
Licking38492416
Medina38487427
Fairfield35469349
Greene33906435
Portage32283366
Clark31960453
Richland29400444
Wood29143301
Allen25702403
Miami23931408
Muskingum23316255
Columbiana22903409
Wayne21965365
Tuscarawas19512428
Erie18531224
Ashtabula18489362
Marion18456235
Scioto17888214
Ross17287260
Pickaway16251181
Hancock16004232
Geauga15456229
Lawrence14746186
Belmont14033248
Union1403384
Huron13838184
Jefferson13519261
Sandusky13180200
Athens12624107
Knox12037201
Seneca11934204
Darke11316202
Ashland11157184
Washington11009172
Auglaize10785147
Crawford10333178
Shelby10308160
Brown9972145
Fulton9661154
Highland9632151
Guernsey9612122
Defiance9486137
Logan9403147
Clinton9299132
Mercer9015112
Madison8971111
Preble8428170
Williams8263138
Putnam8024136
Champaign7974113
Ottawa7909123
Jackson7763121
Perry7415102
Coshocton7345136
Morrow723984
Fayette703292
Pike658489
Hardin6532133
Gallia634391
Adams6159127
Van Wert6025121
Henry598196
Hocking5835105
Wyandot498894
Carroll4961101
Holmes4857167
Paulding421665
Meigs397774
Monroe313868
Harrison296362
Noble295652
Morgan289448
Vinton254646
Unassigned08
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Huntington
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Decatur
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