Fifty Turks, Greeks, other Europeans, Armenians and U.S. bureaucrats sat cooling their statements for an hour recently in a House subcommittee hearing room, waiting for members of Congress to finish orating elsewhere on El Salvador and dash in to talk briefly about human rights in Turkey. Two finally appeared, and one left early.

Once upon a time, the hot lights were on southeast Europe, and Central American diplomats argued before empty chairs. Soon, it may be North Africa's turn. For diplomats whose countries are not at war or otherwise collapsing, the hardest thing in Washington is getting the attention of a member of Congress.

"There's so little time for any one thing," said a congressional aide whose job includes juggling specifics on 12 countries. "It's difficult for us to focus, let alone the members."

Learning how to draw that focus is crucial for a foreign government in search of economic and military aid, bank loans, exchange programs, tariff breaks and everything else Uncle Sugar can provide when properly stroked.

Success requires surgically precise care and feeding of political actors and turning hyphenated Americans into vocal constituents demanding that their favorite nation be noticed. It means understanding the Washington process, which is not easy.

Hearings, for example, "really don't mean much," one Capitol Hill aide said. "The people members of Congress who show up usually have an opinion already, but the embassy people don't understand that."

The mysteries of Congress are so arcane that many small embassies do not bother trying to unravel them. They deal instead with desk officers at the State and Defense departments, trusting the administration to make good on aid and policy positions. In the rest of the world, those in power can usually produce results. That is not necessarily true here, and some foreign nationals who regard the U.S. government as all-powerful have trouble accepting that.

"When an ambassador first comes here, he thinks he has to deal only with the State Department. That's what an ambassador does in England, France or Germany . . . . Here it is altogether different. The power centers are very diffuse, and each is equally important," Turkish Ambassador Sukru Elekdag said. Keeping up with it all, he said, is "a full-time . . . , terrifically difficult job."

Elekdag paid a call in March on freshman Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), who had exploded at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, saying the existence of Turkey's 30,000 political prisoners, most of them Turks, "makes El Salvador look like a local lockup."

Elekdag made a good impression. "He was aggressive, but he stated his case very well," Torricelli said. "He listened to my views, could have gone on the offensive against Greece . . . , but he didn't, and I thought that was very constructive."

About a faraway nation such as Turkey, which is only rarely an issue, busy congressmen tend to adopt the position of a friend or colleague who claims expertise or of a familiar lobbyist. With five House members, two senators and local communities politically active on many issues, Greek-Americans have a built-in advantage over the Turks.

The Turks say they woke up to the need to lobby when Henry A. Kissinger, then secretary of state, let them down in 1974. Turkey had invaded and then expanded its hold in northern Cyprus, arguing that it had to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority, and Greek-Americans here were prodding Congress for help in what they saw as a bloody land grab.

The Defense Department had been effectively promoting Turkey to Congress as a vital defense link, the U.S. ear on the Soviet Union, and Kissinger assured the Turks that there was no problem. He was wrong. Congress imposed a partial embargo on trade and aid to Turkey that lasted four years.

Unlike Greeks, who arrived here in masses after World War I as poor and working-class refugees, Turks in America are a small, relatively wealthy group originally educated under the Marshall Plan in the 1950s and subsequently prospered as doctors, lawyers, businessmen and other professionals. Greek-Americans may number 3 million, while only about 150,000 Turks are scattered in a score of cities.

Like most small, unorganized groups of foreign nationals, Turks drew no attention, but they were not trying. "Our ambitions were largely fulfilled. We didn't see the need to change the political system, and never got involved in it," economist Asim Erdilek said.

Now, many Turks keep bulletproof vests within reach because 25 Turkish government representatives have been murdered in the last decade, four in the United States, by terrorists demanding recognition that 2 million Armenians died at Turkish hands beginning in 1915. The Turks cite independent research that perhaps 200,000 Armenians died then, but only from wartime hardship and excess, not under any Turkish plan to exterminate them.

Turks vie with the Armenian Assembly, an educational and cultural group that condemns the violence, in pouring out conflicting claims and literature. Armenians and Greeks claim that their churches and communities in Turkey are mistreated, while the Turks produce community members who say all is well. At stake, all sides say, is history.

In August, 1981, headlines in the Turkish press announced that a planned Washington memorial to the Jewish Holocaust of World War II would also refer to Turkey's "genocide" of Armenians during World War I. "There was a real uproar," recalled Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee. The Turks protested that the two events were not remotely comparable, and "the Jewish community here was very concerned that they would suffer in Turkey if it was done," he said.

Bookbinder had already grown accustomed to hearing the Turkish Embassy protest "every time someone used that phrase, 'Armenian genocide,' " and he summoned Turkish reporters to reassure them.

"I'm confident that the right words can be found to refer to the Armenian tragedy as an example among many of the kind that must not be permitted in the world . . . without pinning any 'genocide' label on it," he said in a recent interview.

Like many other nationalities, Turks are learning to lobby. The Assembly of Turkish American Associations drew 250 delegates from 38 chapters to an April convention in Atlanta, where the paramount theme was expressed by a banner in Turkish that read: "Strength is born of unity."

"Each year when foreign aid hearings start the Congress is turned by the Greek lobby into an anti-Turkish propaganda arena," Elekdag told the delegates. "Unless you . . . match this effort, this unfortunate ritual will go on."

Elekdag, aware that Greek Ambassador Nicolas A. Karandreas is doing the same, travels throughout the country to prod Turkish-Americans into writing letters, calling congressmen and runnning for local office. The Greeks, in fact, have an entire Cabinet ministry devoted to raising the national consciousness of emigres and descendants.

The Turkish American Awareness Group, operated solely by Rosemarie McManus in Bethesda, is typical of new groups trying to help. Enamored of Turks she met when her husband served with NATO, McManus led her 125-member group last year in raising $2,000 against the candidacy of Greek-American Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) last year. The group was proud to "just be a pro-Turkish presence" at recent foreign-aid hearings, she said.

McManus described a recent women's lunch involving group members and guests as "friendship through flowers" because "some people just aren't geared to politics yet."

The Turks look with envy on the Greeks' American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a fraternal order. Founded in 1922 "to fight the Ku Klux Klan," the all-male AHEPA has 50,000 members in 500 chapters, according to executive director Timothy Maniotis. There is a women's auxiliary.

But Maniotis said the term "Greek lobby" is a misnomer. "If we were powerful, there'd still be an embargo" on aid to Turkey, he said. Greeks say the Turks do not need to lobby because they have Richard N. Perle to do it for them. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, led the administration's campaign to double military aid to Turkey this year, and it was reportedly his idea to send House Armed Services Committee members on the first visit to Turkey made by any congressmen two years. In that time, at least 100 members have visited Greece, which does more to encourage such visits.

"Sure, it worked" in raising members' awareness of Turkey, reported Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who led the delegation. "Turks feel totally ostracized. They must have said 15 times they don't have anybody to speak for them here," she said. Schroeder said she was impressed by the special effort of Turkish President Kenan Evren, who invited the delegation to his home, to be frank and open.

Women, traditionally third-class citizens in unliberated Turkey, gave the visitors several briefings, including one on defense policy, feminist Schroeder noted with approval.

Congress "is basically uninformed, not misinformed" about Turkey, Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) said. Turks began calling him their best friend in Congress when in 1975, he visited Turkey and decided that the aid embargo was only stiffening Turkish views on Cyprus. An eloquent liberal, Solarz said he still hears far less from Turks than from Greek-Americans, so he hunted for Turks in his New York City district. "I found one, just one," he said. "His name is Albert Cohen, and he's a Jewish immigrant from Istanbul."

NEXT: Life in Foggy Bottom