A sucker is born every minute. It may not always be obvious who the sucker is. Pakistan is negotiating with the United States to buy some airplanes. Apparently there is no one left in Pakistan who remembers the 1990s. The United States may be considering selling airplanes to Pakistan. Apparently there is no one left in the administration who remembers Pakistan’s ties to terrorists, the sale of nuclear secrets to Iran and other troubling facts about that country.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s the United States had some really keen airplanes that Pakistan wanted to buy to use if it got into a fight with India. Pakistan paid the United States $650 million for 25 F-16 fighter planes. Then a bad thing happened. Someone remembered the Pressler Amendment that said the planes could only be sold to Pakistan if the president could certify that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons. It was, and the president did not issue the certification. The planes were kept by the United States.
That left the United States with 25 F-16 fighter planes for which it had no use and $650 million for which Pakistan had a use. Instead of writing a refund check to Pakistan, the United States kept the money and tried to get money to repay Pakistan by making deals with other countries. It sold nine of the planes to Indonesia. Before it collected, however, President Suharto got mad because the U.S. was criticizing his human rights record. He cancelled the sale. That left the United States with 25 F-16 fighter planes for which it had no use and $650 million for which Pakistan had a use. A number of other sales or leases were attempted but none proved successful.
In March, 1998, Pakistan announced that it was going to sue the United States to recover the $650 million it had paid that the United States refused to return. It is unclear what defense the U.S. would have asserted had the case been filed. It wasn’t filed and at the end of 1998 the U.S. agreed to pay Pakistan $326.9 million in cash and $140 million in other kinds of compensation including $60 million in white wheat. (That is almost certainly one of the few disputes over $650 million not involving the purchase and sale of white wheat that has ever been settled by the delivery of white wheat.) Earlier, $157 million had been refunded to Pakistan and how the last many millions were to be paid was left up to future negotiations Anyone wanting to know how that came out will have to do his or her own research.
The Pakistanis are now back asking for seconds. Having been ripped off once before it’s a surprise they are back. Given Pakistan’s record it’s a surprise we’d do business with it again and a short while ago it looked as though we would not. In November of 2004 at a White House conference Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Blackwill was quoted as saying with respect to the sale of airplanes to Pakistan: "There’s nothing that we are aware of and at any level a decision has been made to supply F-16s to Pakistan." Things can change in a hurry, especially when friendship trumps principle as it often does in the Bush administration.
On March 16, 2005, it was reported that during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Pakistan, the issue of F-16 sales to Pakistan was sure to come up. Commenting on the upcoming visit, diplomats said that the ban that precluded the earlier sale might be dropped. The reason is apparently related to the fact that Pakistan and India now both have nuclear weapons. That being the case, there’s no reason not to sell Pakistan airplanes that can be used to deliver them since it would not have a destabilizing effect on the region. It wouldn’t be destabilizing because according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. is also prepared to consider selling planes to India. If both countries have the ability to drop their nuclear weapons on each other the balance of power remains in perfect equilibrium. For that I suppose one should be grateful although it’s not clear why.
During Secretary Rice’s visit she said she looked forward to "the evolution of a democratic path toward elections in 2007." Secretary Rice may be looking forward to it. It’s not clear that she and General Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, have the same view. The General may or may not be looking forward to it. What he is certainly looking forward to is the advent of some F-16s. He may get those before he has to decide whether to permit free elections. Time will tell.