“THE Mohammedans in their fanaticism seemed determined not only to exterminate the Christian population but to remove all traces of their religion and…civilisation.” So wrote an American consul in Turkey, in 1915, about an incipient campaign by Ottoman Turkey against its Armenian population. Today, Turkey explains the killings of huge numbers of Armenians—as many as 1.5m died—as an unpleasant by-product of the first world war’s viciousness, in which Turks suffered too. But Armenians have long campaigned for recognition of what they say was genocide.
On Wednesday October 10th America’s Congress stepped closer to endorsing the latter view. The foreign-affairs committee of the House of Representatives passed a bill stating that “the Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.” The bill has enough co-sponsors that it seems likely to pass the full House. The speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has a large number of Armenians in her home district and has promised the measure a vote on the floor. As a foretaste of the trouble this could stir up in Turkey, the country’s president, Abdullah Gul, immediately condemned the passage of the bill. He called it “unacceptable” and accused American politicians of being willing to cause “big problems for small domestic political games”.
Turkey is enormously important to American military efforts in the Middle East. So leading American politicians past and present have lined up to oppose the resolution. President George Bush has said historians, not legislators, should decide the matter. Turkey has hired Dick Gephardt, a former leader of the Democrats in the House, to lobby against the bill. All eight living former secretaries of state, from Henry Kissinger to Madeleine Albright, who lost three grandparents in the Nazi Holocaust, oppose the bill. So does Condoleezza Rice, who holds the post now. Jane Harman, a powerful and hawkish Democrat, initially co-sponsored the measure. But last week she urged its withdrawal. A trip to Turkey, where she met the prime minister and the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, changed her mind.
Ms Harman echoed an argument that others have made against the resolution: that Turkey itself is tiptoeing towards normal relations with neighbouring Armenia. The resolution could throw that process off course. But in other ways Turkey has not helped its own case: its criminal code has been used against writers within the country who dare to mention genocide.
And other Turkish behaviour has further distanced it from America. Turkey recently signed a deal to develop oil and gas with Iran, and has made overtures to Hamas, which runs part of the Palestinian Authority and continues to refuse to recognise Israel. Such behaviour has cost Turkey some support among Jewish Americans—formerly ardent supporters of Turkey as a moderate Muslim republic that is friendly to Israel. Some even worry that a freshly insulted Turkey will not heed America’s opinion when, for example, it thinks about crossing the border into Iraq to pound Kurdish fighters.
It is hardly surprising that Turkey is feeling put-upon. Last year, France’s National Assembly passed a bill not only declaring that the Armenian massacres constituted genocide, but making it a crime to deny it. Had the bill made it into law this would have resulted in an absurd situation in which Turkish law forbade mention of genocide while French law forbade its denial, all during Turkey’s application to join the European Union. Turks complained that the French bill had less to do with Armenians, and more to do with deterring Turkey’s EU membership. The mood has not improved since. France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an outspoken opponent of Turkish membership.
Hurt feelings on both sides are pushing Turkey and the West apart: Turkey feels mistreated, and acts in such a way. But the deal with Iran and its pell-mell pursuit of Kurdish terrorists into Iraq antagonise Americans and Europeans further. At the least, the panicky reaction of the Bush administration over the genocide resolution shows that policymakers realise that they can no longer take Turkey ’s friendship for granted.