Amid recent upheaval in the Middle East, American policymakers have often turned to Turkey as an important partner that shared many U.S. interests. This perception of Turkey is based primarily on history. For the half-century of the Cold War, and for a decade afterward, Turkey was a stalwart U.S. ally. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle continue to treat it as such. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration accorded significant importance to Turkey as a “moderate Muslim” country. President Barack Obama has courted and developed a closer relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan than perhaps any American president has with a Turkish leader.
More recently, however, Turkey became far less static and much more complex and unpredictable than many American observers and policymakers appreciate. Turkish foreign policy—in particular toward the Middle East—has endured a broad, historic shift during Prime Minister Erdoðan’s decade-long tenure. This fundamental reorientation of Turkey’s worldview has been difficult to detect, because it has been overshadowed by rapid policy swerves that, on the surface, seem hard to reconcile within a unitary framework. But it is precisely this volatility, combined with Turkey’s importance for the Middle East, that makes understanding the roots of Turkish conduct vital, not only for a realistic U.S. approach toward Turkey but also for U.S. policy toward the entire region.