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  • The New Activism in Turkish Foreign Policy
  • Alan Makovsky (bio)

Pleased with his decision to throw in Turkey’s lot with the winning U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein, Turkish President Turgut Özal declared at a 1991 post-Gulf War press conference that Turkey “should leave its former passive and hesitant policies and engage in an active foreign policy.” 1

Özal’s decision to back energetically the anti-Iraq coalition effort caught many Turks and long-time observers of Turkey by surprise. Özal had simply brushed aside Ankara’s longstanding policy of non-interference in Middle East disputes. The reasons for his decision are complex and still debated. For one, he anticipated that a grateful United States would reward his support with increased backing for Turkey. (Using a gambling metaphor, he would explain to his critics, “I put in one and take out three.”) For another, he intensely disliked Saddam Hussein, whom he reportedly called “the most dangerous man in the world” in his March 1990 meeting with President George Bush. 2

Some believe that Özal reckoned an impending war would re-draw the map of the region and that he harbored hopes of occupying Iraq’s northern provinces, areas claimed by the young Turkish state in the early 1920s. 3 (In another oft-stated justification of his policies during the crisis, Özal was wont to say “this time we want to be at the table, not on the menu.”) Others are convinced that Özal’s decisive choice to back the coalition was merely virtue made of necessity: since the UN was about to embargo Iraq and Turkey was dependent on the United States, why not show enthusiasm and [End Page 92] conviction about doing what is required anyway, shutting down the Iraqi oil pipeline that traverses Turkey and granting U.S. fighter aircraft the right to use Incirlik Air Force Base?

All of these considerations may have been elements in Özal’s decision-making. However, at the root of his thinking appears to have been an idea less episodic and more strategic in nature. Özal was convinced that Turkey had achieved a new stage in its development, one that allowed it to assume a more forceful position in the region and the world.

Throughout the Cold War, Turkish foreign policy was typically insular and passive, encapsulated by Turkish diplomats with the saying attributed to Kemal Atatürk “peace at home, peace abroad.” Turkey focused its energy on internal development and sought to avoid foreign tensions that could divert it from that goal. Traditionally, Turkey viewed itself as an underdeveloped state, its military ill-equipped and focused strictly on protecting borders and maintaining internal order, not projecting power. It remained neutral during almost all of World War II, joining the allied side only in the war’s waning days with the outcome already decided. Almost from birth, Turkey sought to avoid conflict with the Soviet Union—only Stalin’s post-World War II claims on Turkish territory drove Turkey into alliance with the West—and to demonstrate to its neighbors in former Ottoman Middle Eastern and Balkan territories that it had left its imperial past behind. In the first decades of its existence, Turkey had little interest in its Middle Eastern neighbors, neither to woo, nor antagonize. For the Turkish republic, the Arab world represented the backward ways Turkey itself hoped to shed. Later, when states like Syria and Iraq aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, Ankara had all the more reason to avert clashes. 4

In joining the Gulf War coalition, Turkey broke several of its long-standing taboos. It took sides in a Middle Eastern dispute. It assumed a war-like posture on a Middle Eastern border for the first time since a brief period of tension with Syria in 1957. It allowed its soil to be used for a non-NATO, “out-of-area” operation. Finally, it agreed to serve as a springboard for U.S. Middle East policy for the first time since the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958—an event recalled with regret in Turkish foreign policy circles ever since Turkey moved toward a more pro-Arab orientation in the 1960s. Özal...

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pp. 92-113
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