President Clinton, praising Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for helping the United States combat terrorism and drug trafficking, said Tuesday he will ask Congress to soften the law banning U.S. aid and arms sales to Pakistan because of its nuclear weapons program.
“I intend to ask Congress to show some flexibility … so that we can have some economic and military cooperation,” Clinton said after almost three hours of talks with Bhutto at the White House.
His statement marked a significant tactical shift in U.S. policy, which has been aimed at persuading both Pakistan and neighboring India to renounce nuclear weapons.
A 1985 law known as the Pressler Amendment has banned U.S. aid and arms sales to Pakistan unless the president certifies that the government in Islamabad does not have a nuclear weapons program. But Pakistan ignored the ban and built components for several nuclear bombs during the 1980s. And in 1990 - after years of threats - the Bush administration began enforcing the ban.
Bhutto has rejected U.S. requests for a verifiable cap on Pakistan’s weapons development, arguing that it would leave her country at a disadvantage with neighboring India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974 and is building long-range missiles that could carry atomic warheads.
One impact of the law has been to block delivery of planes and military hardware to Pakistan. Tuesday, in an important gesture to Bhutto, Clinton said he wants to find a way to reimburse Pakistan for the $1.2 billion it paid for the F-16 fighter jets and other military equipment impounded under the embargo in 1990.
“I don’t think it’s right for us to keep the money and the equipment,” Clinton said.
But he noted that the planes’ manufacturer, General Dynamics, already has spent the money it received from the sale.
In effect, Clinton has decided that the ban - which applies only to Pakistan and not India because India has not bought quantities of U.S. arms - has not worked and that he has a better chance of nudging Pakistan to stop its nuclear program if he can offer Bhutto aid and cooperation on a range of other issues.