Righteousness before realism

Imperial delusions die hard - and once again the US Congress is trying to legislate for the world. As most Turks see it, this week's committee vote in the House of Representatives accusing Turkey of genocide against the Armenians in 1915-17 is an insulting, gratuitous interference in their sovereign affairs. As the 27 Democrats and Republicans who backed the bill see it, it is a matter of putting the world to rights, according to America's lights.

Congress has a long history of extraterritorial meddling. It regularly slaps unilateral sanctions on "rogue" governments, and orders foreign businesses and individuals to obey its strictures, regardless of nationality. Its attempts to direct US foreign policy are resisted by the executive branch to varying degrees. On Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Israel, White House and legislature mostly agree. On Turkey, like Iraq, they are at noisy loggerheads.

"We oppose the bill. We think it is a bad idea that will do nothing to improve Turkish-Armenian relations. It will not do anything to advance American interests," Daniel Fried, assistant secretary for Eurasian affairs, told Turkish television this week. President Bush, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and defence secretary, Robert Gates, all chimed in. They even mobilised all former living US secretaries of state in joint opposition, but to no avail. It was a measure of the lame-duck president's chronic weakness.

Sentimentality and righteousness are never far from the surface of American politics. "Despite President Bush twisting arms and making deals, justice prevailed," said Democrat Brad Sherman of California, playing to a gallery of elderly ethnic Armenians who attended the vote and the wider Armenian diaspora. "If we hope to stop future genocides, we need to admit to those horrific acts of the past."

One problem for Mr Sherman and his fellow Californian Democrat, the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is that for the most part Turks admit nothing of the kind - and deeply resent such vicarious apologising. "Twenty-seven foolish Americans" said a headline in the Vatan newspaper. "It is blatantly obvious that [Congress] does not have a task or function to rewrite history," snarled the Ankara government.

Another problem is that the Democrats' motives are up for scrutiny. Turkish media suggest the struggle is less about justice and more about votes and campaign contributions from the powerful Armenian-American lobby, concentrated in the key 2008 election battlefields of California, New Jersey and Michigan.

More pertinently perhaps, Turkish officials ask why, when the US officially believes genocide is occurring right now in Sudan, it is digging up disputed events nearly a century ago. This week saw escalating killings in Darfur and warnings that a beefed-up UN force will not deploy for many months yet. Campaigners say that is partly because Congress has failed to honour US funding pledges.

Having lost the committee vote, and conscious that the full House is expected to approve the bill before Thanksgiving, the Bush administration is now pursuing damage-limitation. Turkey is being reassured the Senate will not pass the bill into law and that in any case, nothing is really changed by such posturing. The hope is that Ankara will not "overreact".

Hope is the correct word, for Mr Bush is now reduced to a fingers-crossed policy. In the next few days, an alienated Turkish parliament will almost certainly vote to authorise punitive military incursions into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatists who find sanctuary there. Such action, going directly against US wishes, has great potential to destabilise the region further.

And that may be just a beginning. As Mr Gates noted this week, Turkey could cut off US military supply lines to Iraq and disrupt air force operations. It could strengthen its de facto anti-Kurdish alliance with Iran and withdraw support for Washington's attempts to isolate Tehran. In the worst case, congressional grandstanding could cost the US its most powerful Muslim ally in the Middle East.

Such catastrophic rupture is unlikely - the two sides need each other too much. But as the Turkish Daily News columnist Mehmet Ali Birand noted today: "In spite of the non-binding nature [of the bill], Turkey will still lose considerable prestige. Armenian allegations will gain credibility. It will make it easier for Armenians to pressurise European parliaments. Turkey will be hurt."

The hurt is deep, born of a sense of a friend's betrayal. And given that a poll earlier this year found that 81% of Turks already disapproved of US policies, the multiplying, ramifying cost to American prestige and leverage is set to rise. Even after Iraq and uncounted "war on terror" disasters, imperial Washington still seems blind to the difference between power and wisdom.

Simon Tisdall