Obama meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Wikimedia.

A mixed record is part and parcel for U.S. Presidents, particularly in this part of the world. A half century of presidents have been trying to solve the Middle East, and look where we’re at. And with so much conflict, especially over the past decade, it’s inevitable that America is usually seen as the bad guy.

One student, a regional sales manager, sums it up in this way:

“Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria – all these and in many other places,” he says, listing each country by name like a catalogue of disaster and failure.

Fairly or unfairly, right or wrong, it’s America that bears the responsibility and the blame.

“And it seems like things have only got worse since Obama became president,” the student adds.

In Turkey’s case, he’s got a point. Back in 2009, while the rest of the world reeled under a global financial crisis, Turkey was relatively unscathed. The economy was growing, and Turkey was viewed by the West as a model Islamic democracy, not to mention a tourist hotspot. Relations between Turkey and its neighbor, Syria, were peaceful; in fact, tariffs and visa restrictions had been all but removed, in hopes of fostering free trade between the two countries. Even the long-standing Kurdish issue appeared on the verge of some resolution, with the signing of a peace accord. The dollar-lira exchange rate was a comparatively favorable 1-1.8.

Eight years later, all that has changed. A civil war rages in Syria, millions of refugees have spilled over into Turkey. Terror attacks by ISIS and Kurdish separatists have rocked Istanbul and many other cities, driving tourists away, and plunging Turkey into the war in Syria. And that’s not even getting into last summer’s attempted military coup. And the dollar-lira rate now stands at 1-3.8 and rising.

With Turkey’s fortunes having taken a drastic turn for the worse, it’s perhaps understandable that they would be far from pleased with the Obama Administration.

“It seems to me that Obama has been the worst American president, even worse than Bush Jr.,” seethes another student, a male manager in his thirties. “I mean, America has so much power. They could solve all these problems. But they don’t want to solve them. It’s in America’s interest to keep the Middle East unstable.”

Other students quietly nod. As an American, I sense the accusations being thrown indirectly at me. That’s nothing new. Any American who’s ever lived abroad gets used to being the stand-in, the representative of the Empire. Besides, it’s an old saw here – going back to the 1980 military coup, I suppose – that America is behind everything, the “Invisible Hand.” All Turkey’s problems are because of America. Even the New Year’s Eve terror attack at Reina night club was seen by some here as orchestrated by the CIA. As if undermining its secular NATO ally at every turn was the central focus of some grand strategy in Washington.

You don’t get very far arguing with most Turks. The resentment, the skepticism, the disbelief, that registers in their faces is palpable. As a teacher, I try to encourage discussion, but of course you’ve got to keep a certain degree of civility and order. After all, we’re supposed to be learning English, not debating geopolitics.

“James, as an American, what do you think Obama has accomplished?” the students ask.

A stream of possible replies flashes through my head. Even without hearing the address, I can anticipate certain things. Health care. Marriage Equality. An economy that is in far better shape than it was back in 2009. Bin Laden dead.

But something occurs to me – how would these accomplishments sound to a Turk? More Americans have health care? Great. Good for them. (Of course, in Turkey everyone already has health care). Gays can get married now? Nice, I guess (although me suspects a conservative Muslim would find this accomplishment something other than wonderful). A recovering economy? Well, … Turks look at their own economy, the lira falling, falling, falling, against the dollar. Bin Laden dead? Well, what did that accomplish exactly? Hasn’t stopped terrorism, certainly not here.

What has Obama accomplished – in terms that Turks could relate to, I ask myself?

Good question. Finally I say:

“You know what? Let’s just listen to the address.”


The hour-long speech began. President Obama thanked America for the past eight years. He encouraged his countrymen to support the incoming Trump Administration.

“FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS!” chanted the partisan crowd.

“I can’t do that,” said the president, flashing his trademark smile. We listen as Obama calls for solidarity (I have to write this word on the board), amidst the challenges of next week’s transition.

“That’s right, Obama can’t have four more years,” says another student, a manager for an insurance company. “Because of the Constitution, right?”

“Right,” I said. We’ve been over this in class.

This point is especially relevant to Turks. As I write this, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Parliament are meeting in Ankara to make changes to the Turkish Constitution to expand the powers of the presidency. It’s a very controversial issue, as many Turks fear that Erdoğan is trying to consolidate and expand his already formidable hold on the country.You might have read that there was even a fist-fight in Parliament this week between lawmakers of the different parties.

“So when will we hear Erdoğan’s farewell address?” I ask.

The students grin ruefully.

“Probably never,” they concede.

We listen as Obama moves on to outline threats to democracy, ranging from economic, to social, from political to personal. Helping the Middle Class, eliminating racism and discrimination, encouraging tolerance, open-mindedness and spirited debate. He talks of the need for citizens to guard against complacency, to remain “vigilant but not afraid.”

Much of this involves me going up to the board to write down key words, and to provide a framework for later discussion. I’m thinking we might need to refer back to them later.

But as I write, I can’t help but think about the long-standing Kurdish question, the hundreds of journalists locked up in Turkish prisons. The tens of thousands of people arrested, detained, following the military coup attempt last July. The equally many forced from their jobs, ranging from the police to the courts to academia.

Because of the sensitivity of the Gulen issue, I avoid discussing this last part with students. But the issue of Press Freedom in general does come up.

“I think the big problem in Turkey is lack of education,” says yet another student, a manager. “It’s a problem everywhere. The journalists are not educated enough, but also the same could be said for the courts, the politicians. Everywhere the problem is not enough education.”

Next we listen and watch as Obama thanks First Lady Michelle, and his daughters. It’s a touching, emotional moment. Family is a very important part of Turkish (and Muslim) culture. As Obama wipes away a tear of gratitude, I couldn’t help but notice more than a few of my students had grown a bit misty-eyed.

And finally, Obama reminds his countrymen that change has always been a hallmark of America, but the important thing is to always be optimistic that the changes will be good, even if the struggle is very difficult.

“Obama is very charismatic,” a female student says, saying it as if she were realizing something for the first time.

“He is that,” I say.

It was a bit emotional for me, too, I have to say. I can remember back in 2009, seeing Obama when he traveled to Prague. Believe it or not, back then my Czech students had some difficulty believing that a black man was now the leader of the Free World. And yet upon his arrival, they were ecstatic. I was among the nearly 40,000 Czechs who crammed outside Prague Castle to hear and see the new president and his wife.

“They’re so attractive!” I remember my student Jitka, a manager at a cosmetics company, saying.

This sentiment was echoed by another female manager, from a pharmacuetical company, who said:

“James, I think your president is the most handsome president in the world.”


Thinking back on that spring, and listening to Obama give his farewell, I couldn’t help but feel proud of him again, as I was that day at Prague Castle.

What has Obama accomplished?

Coming off the emotion of listening to the address, I guess I was ready to launch a passionate response. But we were out of time. The lesson was over.

“We can talk more next week,” I said.

“Yes, I we can watch Trump’s – what’s the word?” they ask .

“Inauguration.” One last word I write on the board.

After the students left, I went to erase the board. But I stopped and looked at what we as a class had written there, all the different key points from the speech.

What has Obama accomplished?

Well, the fact that we were even having this discussion – in a terror-rocked country, a country right on the front line of the war against all of the things Obama talked about – all the threats against democracy outlined in his speech – was a testimony of its own kind. A testimony to the enduring spirit of America, and the values of democracy, that I believe Obama has upheld, personified and embodied over the past eight years. But that’s a personal opinion, and difficult to translate in this part of the world, which some would argue is virtually at war with democracy. But again, one can hardly blame people in this part of the world for being skeptical, given a half century of presidents have never been able to keep the whole equation of the so-called Middle East in their heads.

But hopefully, the message of optimism and belief expressed by Obama, and the mere presence of his example – following the rule of law, stepping down, and allowing for the next guy – will gain resonance as time goes by.

One student, who was using the bathroom, catches me on the way out the door. Together we walk out to the street, where the snow is falling.

“I think Obama was a good communicator,” he says, you can tell he’s still thinking about the speech. “But maybe for different times and different challenges, we need different kinds of leaders. Trump is a strong man, like Putin, like our Erdoğan. Who knows? Maybe this style of leadership will be better.”

A half century of presidents …

“Who knows?” I say.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.