Memo to President Erdoğan: Cautionary tales from past US presidents

Memo to President Erdoğan: Cautionary tales from past US presidents

Last Thursday, Aug. 28, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made history by taking office as the first popularly elected president in Turkey’s history. Erdoğan has stated that his election is "historic" and that “all barriers between the people and Çankaya have been removed." However, winning a popular election – even by a wide margin – is not by itself a sign that a president will leave a respected legacy. Both global society and Turkish history will serve as Erdoğan’s ultimate judges. Examining evidence from past U.S. presidents and their legacies more fully illustrates this point, while perhaps alerting Erdoğan to potential pitfalls.

Take George W. Bush, for example. Most political commentators would consider his presidency a failure, despite the fact that Bush did not cause the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 that precipitated many of his policies. However, Bush’s reaction to 9/11 – building a foreign policy that set out to invade Muslim countries and create political systems that mirrored the U.S. – failed to consider local norms, existing regimes and the potential consequences of both success and failure. Many argue that the present crises in the Middle East, including the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL), the Syrian civil war and the Taliban’s resurgence are all the fallout from Bush’s failed policies. Working in the contemporary political climate of the Middle East and Russia, Erdoğan must construct a foreign policy that does not further diminish Turkey’s presence in the region.

Delving deeper into history provides cautionary tales from other American presidents. Woodrow Wilson was elected to serve as president twice – the first time with a wide margin. His reforms strengthened the banking system and his work to fight tariffs increased the incomes of poor and middle class families. However, Wilson also held racist views, particularly against blacks and the Irish. Hence, despite his onetime popularity and economic reforms, Wilson’s presidency is now regarded as a failure. Although the economy’s buoyancy has been Erdoğan’s most celebrated accomplishment, Turkey’s economy appears increasingly fragile. Wilson serves as a reminder that even a president’s deft management of economics can be overshadowed by discriminatory beliefs and practices.

Finally, in 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected president with one of the widest margins in history. Nixon’s policies, which tackled issues from devastating inflation to the U.S.’s Cold War-era relationship with China, were both popular with the masses and respected by commentators. Yet despite this popularity, Nixon was unsatisfied. He felt the media was against him and he obsessed about his opponents. To satiate his fixation, Nixon illegally ordered journalists’ phones to be tapped and allowed burglars to break into the headquarters of the Democratic Party. Consequently, Nixon, one of the most popular presidents in history, was forced to resign in shame. Rather than being remembered for his achievements, his lasting legacy is his downfall, which was no one’s fault but his own.

On the other hand, some of the greatest presidents in American history are those who were forced to govern without popular support. Abraham Lincoln made the incredibly unpopular decision to oppose slavery – resulting in the South seceding and bringing about the Civil War. Despite the outbreak of war and its debilitating economic impact, Lincoln is regarded as a sage-like leader. John F. Kennedy was elected with a very small margin, yet no other modern president has been such an iconic leader. Furthermore, Kennedy’s approach to political problem-solving after the Bay of Pigs incident – gathering supporters and opponents around a table and forcing them to debate each other, rather than relying on a team of sycophants – changed the policy-making process. President Harry Truman, who governed in an extremely divisive political landscape, similarly remains one of the nation’s most respected leaders. Why? Domestically, his governing style made overtures to and included compromises with his opposition. Simultaneously, he was an empathetic leader in foreign affairs, supporting the creation of the United Nations and helping rebuild Europe and East Asia after World War II through the Marshall Plan and other aid.

Hence – as President Erdoğan will learn – popularity is not the primary credential for establishing a lasting legacy in politics. In fact, historically, a president’s popularity is only a footnote. Rather, truly great presidents work toward furthering democratic rights, both in terms of their domestic policy agendas and their leadership in global affairs.

Sarah F. Fischer holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from American University in Washington, D.C. Her research examines secularism in Turkish politics. Fischer currently teaches at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.