October 23, 2014

Turkish Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East


From the late 1980s on, the Cold War’s end and the European Community’s (EC) growing integration were factors seemingly requiring fundamental adjustments in foreign policy orientations by all European states. But states still had to decide whether or to what extent to revise their policies. Turkey was hesitant to adapt its stands in the face of the external environment’s new shape. The forces of continuity proved powerful.

Scholars such as Philip Robins, Sabri Sayari and William Hale have argued that Turkish foreign policy changed profoundly during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis. This study seeks to show that Turkish foreign policy at that time did not deviate from its traditional orientation.

The Gulf Crisis erupted at a time when Turkey was starting to reconsider its Cold War policies and had decided to reassert itself as an important factor in European security in the new era. In other words, Turkish policymakers perceived changes in the external environment, the first condition for a state’s changing its foreign policy. Many times, shifts in the external environment may go unnoticed due to policymakers’ misperception or ignorance. But then analysts must see what happened in the state’s behavior to know whether real change materialized or not.

The argument that Turkish foreign policy changed in the post-Cold War era is a consequence of a theoretical misconception from the analysts’ implicit neo-realist assumptions, which lead them to assume foreign policy behavior is responsive to changes in the external environment. Structure is said to have causally affected state behavior if it is possible to show that behavioral change was preceded by structural change, and if one can rule out alternative explanations. Thus, there is no need to demonstrate intermediary links: Turkish foreign policy in the post-Cold War must have changed since the external environment did.

A related problem here is that this approach reduces the ability to distinguish between possible conflicts between policy declarations and policy. Evidence must be presented to show that behavior is different from what it was in the past. Policymakers for the sake of domestic politics may claim that policy has changed whether they support or oppose it. This was the framework of the argument during the Gulf crisis between President Turgut Ozal and the opposition parties.

Change in foreign policy must first be defined in order to be detected. This study uses Kjell Goldmann’s definition of foreign policy change: change in policy will have taken place when ‘either a new act in a given type of situation or a given act in a type of situation previously associated with a different act’ is observed. Even if one argues that fundamental policy has not changed, it may help us gain a much greater understanding of both traditional and current policy.

In this case, an analysis of Turkey’s past policies shows that Turkish foreign policy has always been designed so as to give priority to relations with the West rather than the Middle East, and that Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East has always been considered an extension of the Western-oriented Turkish foreign policy. The difference in the Gulf Crisis is the rhetoric employed by some policymakers, especially President Ozal, who found it politically expedient to argue that the country’s policy had changed ‘from the stagnant policies of the past.’ Indeed, this claim in itself constituted a response to the changing international environment, by suggesting that Ozal had moved Turkey closer to Western stands than had been done before.

Kemalist Foundations of Turkish Foreign Policy (1923-1938)

Turkish foreign policy stands on well-established principles driven from the Kemalist legacy. The most prominent of these, ‘Peace at home and peace abroad,’ is considered the keystone of Turkish foreign policy. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic said in his State of the Nation speech on November 1, 1928: ‘It is quite natural and therefore simple to explain the fact that a country which is in the midst of fundamental reforms and development should sincerely desire peace and tranquillity both at home and in the world.’ Kemalist foreign policy did not leave any room for idealism other than it most cherished goal of becoming an equal member of the Western world of nations.

Ataturk only qualified his desire for peace by saying: ‘In the formulation of our foreign policy we pay particular attention to the safety and security of our country and to our capability to protect the rights of the citizenry against any aggression.’ While Turkey’s wished to live in peace with all nations and maintain friendly relations with great and small powers alike, it was always prepared to defend itself from potential aggressors.

According to Aptlahat Akin, first Turkish Ambassador to Syria, a peculiarity of Ataturk’s foreign policy was its dislike for military alliances and pacts. This stemmed, argues Akin, from his conviction that every alliance provoked a counter-alliance by causing suspicion and insecurity among other countries, which would be against both Turkey’s principles and interests.

During the Ataturk era, Turkey’s international orientation was non-alignment, which seemed to best fit its objectives in the immediate post-World War One period. Turkey was a war-torn country in need of internal reconstruction, which made seeking peace a necessity. Two basic foreign policy goals reigned throughout the period: to create a strong, modern state which could defend its territorial integrity and political independence, without external assistance, against external aggression; and to make Turkey a full, equal member of the Western European community of nations.

The main principle of Turkey’s Middle East policy, to avoid interference with that region’s affairs. was formulated within this general framework. Although bilateral relations with regional states were established, the main thrust remained leaving the Arabs alone. The 1937 Sadabad Pact concluded with Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan was a good example of how Kemalist foreign policy distanced itself from the Middle East. Rather than being an example of regional cooperation and collaboration, as it is sometimes claimed, the Pact’s principles were those of non-interference in each others’ affairs.

Compared to Turkey’s goal of joining the West–plus normal concerns for security, territorial integrity, and political independence–other possible goals such as propagating the Kemalist ideology, supporting anti-imperialist movements elsewhere, or regional leadership, were either ignored or subordinated. Turkey’s Middle East policy, as indicated above, was shaped as an ‘extension’ of its pro-Western policy with the ultimate aim of minimizing dangers to its core objectives.

However, in accounting for Kemalist foreign policy, one should not be misled by the common perception that it totally avoided Middle East affairs. For example Richard Robinson argues, ‘During the early years, republican Turkey refrained from making overtures against anyone. In her weakness, she wished to give no cause for complaint. Other than the Hatay plum, which ripened and fell into the Turkish lap, the Turks pursued a non-committal policy, even up to the closing months of the World War II.’

In fact, it was Ataturk himself who patiently waited until the Hatay plum ripened. Between March 15, 1923, when he mentioned Hatay (the Sandjak of Alexandretta) as having been Turkish land for 4000 years, and the mid-1936 signing of the Montreux convention (the treaty governing passage through the straits, so vital for Turkey’s interests as to overshadow every other concern), Ataturk cautiously waited and helped the Turks of Hatay to pave the way for its incorporation into Turkey. Finally in October 1936, Ataturk, noticing the international environment was favorable for such a move took the initiative. By suddenly leaving for Adana to inspect the troops, he made sure that the French would understand his readiness to resort to military means if the Hatay problem was not solved in favor of the Turks. In the final analysis, it was Ataturk’s strategy that gained the objective.

To give another example, an indication of the lower priority given relations with the Middle East came during the 1924-25 upheavals in Morocco. The Turkish attitude toward the proto-nationalist struggle showed that Turkey’s ignorance of regional independence movements–for which the Democratic Party (DP) government was harshly criticized during the 1950s–was not without precedent. At first, the Turkish press and public opinion took interest in the Rif rebellion and drew parallels with Turkey’s own War of Independence. However, from 1925 on, the government press and the elite began to voice concern that it might hurt Turkey’s interests to draw the wrath of the French and the Spanish at a time when their support was needed in the League of Nations to secure a favorable solution of the Mosul dispute.

Thus, the roots of Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East were laid in an era when Turkish foreign policymakers tended to avoid involvement in Middle East affairs. The fact that relations with the West were given top priority sometimes led Turkey to avoid entanglement with the Middle Eastern states.

Thus, the argument that Turkish foreign policy in the Gulf Crisis constituted a deviation from traditional Kemalist foreign policy stood on an interpretation of Kemalist foreign policy as preaching total avoidance of Middle East affairs. In fact, Turkey’s position was based on its interpretation of how any such involvement would affect its higher-priority West-oriented goal.

Change in Turkey’s Stance: NATO Membership and its Aftermath

During the Second World War, there did not seem to be any direct contact between Turkey and Middle East states. Following the signing of the tripartite treaty with the French and British (19 October 1939) and a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Germany (18 June 1941), Turkey turned its eyes toward the West. Relations with the Middle East, together with concerns other than remaining out of the war, were frozen during the course of the war.

Things did not change much after the end of the War in that the Republican People’s Party (RPP) governments did not seem enthusiastic to adapt Turkish policy to drastic changes in the region. Turkish foreign policy makers’ attitudes toward the newly independent Middle East states seemed to be one of accepting the existing situation but nothing more.

Turkey’s western orientation continued in its post-war policies, including active involvement in the 1950-1953 Korean war and becoming a NATO member on 17 February 17, 1952. Active Turkish involvement in Middle East affairs and enthusiasm to cooperate with the U.S. forces during the DP administration can be regarded as a part of the same effort. Thus it can be argued that ‘seeking to maintain Turkey^�s credibility as a reliable partner of the West…caused it to pursue a pro-Western policy. Besides, Turkey’s NATO membership came only after a promise made to the British that Turkey would assume responsibility for the establishment of a Middle East Defense Organization.

In the following years these measures were furthered by DP governments which criticized its RPP predecessors for aloofness during World War II. The Middle East became the focus of the DP governments’ attempt to prove their loyalty and willingness to cooperate to Turkey’s Western allies. While Turkish policymakers did not know the Middle East well–lacking experience of involvement in regional affairs–they argued that ‘only the Turks really understood the Arabs and therefore were in a position to approach the Arab states’ for the proposed defense organization.

Another motive for Turkey’s effort here was to secure its eastern and southeastern borders from a direct or indirect Communist threat. This policy evolved gradually. As the Communist threat to the region grew, the Turks became less hesitant to ally themselves with the West though they came to realize the difficulties in developing better cooperation and understanding with Middle East states. According to the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, George McGhee (1951-1953), ‘Earlier, when it was still seeking admission to NATO, Turkey had felt obliged to demonstrate its solidarity with the West. Subsequently, the Turks felt they must be loyal to their new allies.’ Since Western interests so frequently clashed with those of Middle East states, it was impossible for Turkey to satisfy everyone, and thus it had decided that the West must be given top priority.

During this era not only its Middle East policy but literally everything other than Turkey’s core objectives of maintaining security, political independence and territorial integrity were subordinated to the goal of Westernization and becoming a full member of the West European community of nations.

During the 1950s, Turkey’s economy also became dependent upon the West, further reinforcing this pro-Western policy. From the late 1930s on, the futility of non-alignment had become known to Turkish policymakers not only due to security considerations but also because of increasing economic difficulties at home. Thus the external financing of Turkish economy became one of the factors shaping Turkish foreign policy.

Kemal Karpat underlines Turkish foreign policy objectives in the Middle East from the 1940s on as ‘achieving first, national security, second, economic aid, and third, at expanding influence in the area.’ It is in this sense that Turkish policy towards the Middle East became an extension of Turkey’s pro-Western foreign policy. None of these objectives were adopted for the sake of strengthening relations with regional states but rather as a result of Turkish attempts to prove itself to the West as a cooperative partner in regional affairs.

By 1955, the DP government had already concluded that a Middle East Defense Organization was doomed to fail without Arab participation, which it had not obtained. At the same time, Turkey vitally needed cooperation with the West by forming such an organization not only due to security considerations or as a step toward proving itself part of the West, but especially because it needed to continue and strengthen its relationship with the West for domestic political and economic reasons. Inflationary policies and foreign trade deficits had brought Turkey’s economy face to face with bankruptcy.

The Menderes government, more than any other time, needed Western and especially U.S. aid. Accordingly, the previous RPP and the ruling DP governments agreed that Turkey stood to benefit more from a comprehensive association than from a bare formal security guarantee. The Democrats also considered NATO membership a way of protecting themselves from a coup. When the Menderes government reacted to the Iraqi military coup (1958) by trying to convince the United States to intervene in Iraq, it was partly out of a desire to discourage potential coupmakers in Turkey.

Thus, between 1930 and 1960, Turkey’s core foreign policy objectives remained the same except for dropping the phrase ‘without external assistance.’ Regarding the Middle East, the Turks were not very interested in the political structure and objectives of their Middle East neighbors. Lack of experience in the region and Kemalist foreign policy’s avoidance of regional affairs during the Republic’s initial years enabled successive Turkish governments not only to pursue but to justify this course. The fact that Turkey, despite initial hesitation, went forward with the idea of a Middle Eastern Defense Organization and then the Baghdad Pact shows Turkey’s willingness to be subservient to the will of its allies, and especially the United States into whose sphere of influence it had entered.

During these years, Turkey took a few–then undisputed– actions that later came under immense criticism. Turkey’s voting record in the UN was one of those problematic issues. In 1955, Turkey voted against Algerian independence in the General Assembly. In 1957, Turkey abstained from voting on an Afro-Asian proposal for Algerian self-determination. Support for the British-initiated Baghdad Pact was another DP government action harshly criticized during the 1960s for alienating the Arabs and causing Turkey’s isolation.

The 1956 Suez Crisis was a test case for Turkey’s Middle East policy. During the crisis, although Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel on November 20, 1956, it nevertheless informed the Israelis that it would remain friendly. Afterwards, diplomatic relations were continued at a lower level with exchange of charge d’affaires. Since the Suez Crisis caused alienation of the Arab states, a rift formed between the Baghdad Pact members and non-members. The Baghdad Pact, largely due to its divisive nature, came to be regarded as a failure.

But a policy’s success or failure must be considered with regard to its objectives. What Turkey was trying to achieve through its Middle East policy during the 1950s, as argued above, was not gaining regional states’ friendship, for whom it did not seem to care very much. It may even be argued that the Turks were not yet conscious of the importance of the role the Third World, and particularly the Middle East states, was beginning to play internationally. The alienation of Middle East states was a side effect of Turkey’s Western-oriented foreign policy, which, during the 1960s, made rapprochement with the Middle East its foreign policy objective, again not for its own sake but in order to strengthen Turkey^�s position vis-�-vis the West.

Still, Turkish foreign policy of the 1950s became the main criterion against which later policies would be tested, though in a different way. The policies of the 1950s were accepted as mistakes not to be repeated so that the so called new Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East, drafted in the mid-1960s, was intended to become a continuity in negation.

The New Turkish Foreign Policy (1960-)

Prelude to change, 1960-1964

The 1960 military coup did not bring about any significant change in Turkey’s foreign policy. Its Middle East policy which was still an extension of Turkey’s Western-oriented foreign policy. The lack of cautiousness and the urge to act with the West, attitudes identified with DP governments, remained visible in Turkish actions. For example, on September 29, 1961, when Syria decided to break away from the United Arab Republic (UAR -founded by Syria and Egypt in 1958), Turkey became the second state after Jordan to recognize the new regime. That early declaration was probably prompted by Turkey’s happiness to see a rift between the region’s two most anti-Western states. This step drew the wrath of the Egyptian leadership, which cut all diplomatic relations with Turkey. Another example of continuity in Turkey^�s policy was seen in Turkey’s voting record during 1961 when it served as a member of the UN Security Council.

Change in Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East

During the early 1960s, although the Soviets gave indications of eagerness to normalize relations, Turkish policymakers remained cautious and made known their desire that Turkish-Soviet relations remain within the framework of East-West relations. The change in East-West relations, which became more visible after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when it became clear that both the United States and the USSR were determined not to be drawn into war with each other, only gradually convinced Turkish policymakers of the need for a multilateral foreign policy.

Nevertheless, a review of U.S.-Turkish and Turkish-Middle East relations took place only after 1964, prompted by such earlier events as the U.S. landing in Lebanon’s use of Incirlik air base without consultation with the Turkish authorities. The review of Turkish-Middle East relations was largely caused by Turkish displeasure with the attitude of its allies who failed to support Turkey on the Cyprus issue. The Middle East countries’ support of the Greek Cypriots caused the Turks to come to terms with their cultural and historical bonds.

The so-called new Turkish foreign policy, drafted in the mid-1960s as a result of these discussions and considerations, was expected to correct mistakes committed during the 1950s that were blamed for the deterioration of relations with the Middle East which, in return, caused Turkey’s isolation in the region and alienation at the UN concerning Cyprus. In this sense, Turkey’s pre-1960 policies toward the Middle East produced a negative feedback that led to cognitive inconsistency in and increased opposition to its policies.

The most prominent feature of the new Turkish foreign policy was its emphasis on multi-faceted policy making. Turkey’s foreign policy orientation, although subject to criticism by radical rightist and leftist circles alike, remained unquestioned at the policymaking level. Turkey’s national role conceptions did not change either, though the role of faithful ally came to be less emphasized.

When applied to the Middle East context, this policy required less cooperation with the United States, and a more balanced attitude towards the Arab-Israeli dispute. Nonetheless, Turkey refrained from overruling cooperation with the United States and preferred to make its decisions ad hoc. Decrease of tension in the region, enabled by the end of Turkish-Western efforts to direct the regional course of politics and the resurgence of inter-Arab rivalries, allowed the Turks to distance themselves from U.S. policies without incurring any costs. A good example of this effort was seen in 1964 when Turkey, together with other CENTO (Central Treaty Organization, the name the Baghdad Pact took after Iraq’s withdrawal in 1958) members, Iran and Pakistan, concluded an agreement to create the organization of Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD). Although RCD seemed to be duplicating non-military functions of CENTO, it served an important political and psychological role

However, regarding the use of NATO bases for non-NATO purposes, Turkish policy makers preferred to preserve a degree of ambiguity which they believed to have a deterrent value of its own. Although Turkey maintained that it would not allow the use of its bases during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, it is premature to argue that this was an indication of a complete reversal in Turkish foreign policy simply because Turkey refused to cooperate with the United States while adopting a policy of benevolent neutrality that tilted toward the Arabs. It would be more accurate to argue that Turkey adopted a policy of caution in its attitudes towards Middle East crises as it carefully weighed the pluses and minuses of each potential action and decided accordingly. In this sense, Turkish foreign policy carefully stuck with one of the main principles of Kemalist foreign policy: pragmatism. As seen in Turkish policy makers^� declarations during the 1980s’ Middle East crises.

By the end of the 1970s, however, as increasing Soviet activities in peripheral areas gave way to a second Cold War, Turkey’s threat perceptions began to intensify. The twin crises of 1979–the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution–led Turkish policymakers to reconsider Turkey^�s ties with the West. The Turks, although still refusing to make any formal strategic commitment outside the NATO framework, became more eager for consultations about cooperation for security in the Middle East. To quote one analyst of Turkish foreign policy, these developments brought back the traditional images of international politics held by the Turkish policymakers.

To give an example, in November 1983, the Ulusu government concluded an accord with the United States whereby American troops in the Multinational force in Lebanon (deployed in Beirut at the request of the Lebanese government, following the 1982 Israeli attack on PLO forces in Beirut, with the task of assisting the Lebanese Army in restoring the central government’s authority) were given the right to use the NATO base at Incirlik. The permission Turkey granted the Multinational force to use the Incirlik base during the Gulf crisis (1990-91) was another example of how Turkey cooperated with the West when deemed necessary, and felt conditions to be ripe for such cooperation.

It is in this sense that one should not go too far in claiming that Turkey’s relations with the United States were weakened in the post-Menderes era or that Turkey adopted a principle to overrule any U.S. request for the use of NATO bases in Turkey for non-NATO purposes. On the contrary, it may be argued that Turkey’s national role conception remained that of a faithful ally of both NATO and the United States, although the latter was less pronounced. In this sense Turkey’s new foreign policy can be considered to have become successful: Without changing the basic tenets of their foreign policy, Turkish policymakers were able to pull the Middle East states to their side -to the extent that was possible.

Turkish foreign policy in the post-Cold War era

Turkey’s new foreign policy starting in the 1960s was later defined as the traditional Kemalist policy, in part to justify it. In retrospect it was defined as: non-interference in the domestic affairs of Middle East countries and in inter-country relations; equality among states; maintaining both diplomatic relations with Israel and political support for the Arab cause; preserving links with the West in regard to their impact on Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and vice versa; development of bilateral relations.

These principles still continue to guide Turkish foreign policy makers during the 1990s. What is surprising is that the same set of principles is taken as a reference point in trying to prove that Turkish foreign policy in the Gulf Crisis constituted a deviation from the traditional/Kemalist foreign policy. Philip Robins, author of Turkey and the Middle East, argues for example that ‘it is…clear that in a changing world, especially one which has altered so profoundly on the cusp of the new decade, there will be modifying pressures on even the most basic principles of foreign policy. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 provided a new challenge to the principles of Turkish policy on the Middle East.

Sabri Sayari, in similar fashion, describes Turkish foreign policy in the Gulf Crisis as a ‘major break from decades of established Turkish policy concerning non-involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts.’

On the other hand, Hamit Batu, drafter of the new Turkish foreign policy, argues that Turkish policy during the Gulf crisis cannot be considered to constitute such a shift, ‘for developments have been too rapid for any government to chart a new course amid unpredictable events.’ Batu prefers to define Turkey’s policy toward the Gulf Crisis as constituting a deviation from some of the practices of its traditional policies. Andrew Mango agrees with him on this point and regards, ‘The imperceptible rate of change of Turkish foreign policy [as] the base of journalists in search of copy, and even of academics in search of theses to prove.’ Nevertheless, he agrees that the Gulf Crisis (1990-91) brought about a degree of change to Turkish foreign policy in that Turkey got involved in an inter-Arab dispute, something it tried to avoid since the Baghdad Pact.

Accordingly, it is disputable whether Turkey’s involvement in the anti-Iraqi camp regarding the Kuwait crisis, was a change in Turkey^�s foreign policy toward the Middle East. As mentioned before, change, in this study, is defined as ‘a new act in a given type of situation or a given act in a type of situation previously associated with a different act.’ Building on this definition, for Turkey’s involvement in an inter-Arab dispute and granting permission to the multinational force to use the NATO base at Incirlik to constitute a deviation from traditional/Kemalist Turkish foreign policy, the traditional policy should have overruled such an action. However, as indicated before, Turkish foreign policy makers–even when following a multi-faceted foreign policy, which aimed at rapprochement with Middle East states–did not completely rule out cooperation with the United States, which also remained an important priority.

Thus, it can well be argued that Turkey’s foreign policy toward the Middle East shows continuity. Although there have been some adjustments, the policy’s main tenets remained the same. Adjustments, of course, are constant, as in Heracletius’s observation that one cannot step in the same stream twice.

The fact that scholars like Robins, Sayari, Hale, and others, taking the same set of principles as reference point, argue that Turkish foreign policy during the Gulf Crisis did change, can be explained, as argued before, with reference to their implicit neo-realist assumptions. It is argued here that most of the analysts have the agent-structure relationship in their minds when they argue that change in the external environment caused change in foreign policy, without paying due regard to internal dynamics. The profundity of the change in the external environment–the twin revolutions of the Cold War’s end and further integration of the EC–leads the analysts to conclude that Turkey automatically responded to these changes by adapting its foreign policy. The rhetoric employed by President Ozal and his critics also support this view, for they all argue for change to have taken place in Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East.

The last but not the least important factor against change was perhaps Turkey’s Middle East policy itself. Cautious to distinguish between pragmatism and opportunism, the foreign policy establishment did not deviate from past practices. In sum, side-effects of and spillovers from certain policies, if mistaken for substance in the larger framework of change and continuity, may be misleading. The history of Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East presents a fine case study to test these premises. If one has to account for policy changes, the only watersheds were when Turkey opted to join a collective alliance (NATO) in 1952; and when it began developing multilateral relations as of the late 1960s. Otherwise, accelerated or decelerated relations and ad hoc reactions cannot be categorized as change given the historical perspective.

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Due to a technical error in a previous version of this paper, the location of the references was lost. Rather than omit the sources of Prof. Criss’ piece altogether, it was decided to create a bibliographical list. Also lost in the previous version were Turkish characters. In future issues, references will be in the form of in-text citations. We apologize for any inconvenience.