With his decision last week to sell F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan, President Bush returns to a dangerous game of self-deception that hasn't been seen at this level of risk since Richard Nixon was in the White House.
The deal involves a mere couple of dozen F-16s, but it opens up three avenues of great hazard.
First, right after President Bush told the Pakistanis that the sale was on, he called the Indians to assure them he would take a well-disposed look at their weapons wish lists to redress the resulting imbalance. The unfolding dynamic is thus predictable: Pakistan orders still more weapons to compensate for India's new purchase; India buys more to match the ante; and on the ratcheting goes, the tinderbox swelling.
Second, Bush (pending near-certain congressional approval) is lifting a ban on arms transfers to Pakistan that has been in effect since 1989. The restriction was imposed after intelligence clearly revealed that Pakistan was turning its stockpile of enriched uranium into nuclear bombs. The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act forbade the supply of any weapons to countries that crossed this line. So, President George H.W. Bush issued a stop order, halting production of 43 F-16s earmarked for Pakistan (in addition to 40 already delivered), 17 of them paid for in advance. It is this transaction that Bush's son now seeks to resume—even though Pakistan has not only pushed ahead with nuclear weapons but sold the resulting technology to several tinhorn dictators.
Worse still, the latest version of the plane, the F-16C/D—which is the model Pakistan will receive—can carry atomic bombs under its wings. The plane's wiring would have to be modified in order for the bombs to be fused and dropped, but German intelligence agencies reported long ago that the Pakistanis have figured out how to do this. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said Pakistan needs the F-16s to combat terrorists in the mountains on the Afghan border. But really it wants them to drop bombs on India in case of another India-Pakistan war. (Pakistan already has two types of missiles that can do this; India has nuclear-capable planes and missiles, as well.)
On a broader level, Rice has justified the sale as a token of U.S. friendship and commitment to Pakistan's security, a reward for its cooperation in the war on terrorism, and an inducement to further progress toward democratic rule. If we ignore Pakistan's request for the planes, Rice has said in interviews, these trends could collapse.
There may be something to this argument, but the Pakistanis are more likely lassoing us than vice versa. President Musharraf is promising elections in 2007, but by that time all the weapons he could want will have been delivered—and whatever leverage we once had will have expired. We will then be trapped in a web of our own weaving. Musharraf will put in an order for resupply or perhaps for more sophisticated weapons, and he'll warn Bush that a refusal will be taken as a betrayal of trust, a blow to our fledgling alliance, a prompt to resume nasty ways (if they were ever repudiated to begin with).
What's really happening is that the question, "Why should we sell arms to a particular country?" has been replaced by, "Why not?" In the case of Pakistan, there's the further consideration that India is determined to buy 125 new fighter jets to replace its fleet of antiquated Soviet-built MiGs; it's looking at the F-16, but also at French-built Mirages. That being the case, selling F-16s to Pakistan can be rationalized as a step to preserve the balance of power. Besides, if Musharraf doesn't buy the planes from us, he can look to the French or the Chinese.
In other words, for all the talking about rewarding friends and maintaining influence, what this really comes down to—what it's always come down to—is money and market share. During the Cold War, the market share was political (if we don't sell planes to Peru, the Russians will); now it's economic (if we don't sell planes to Pakistan, the Chinese will).
U.S. arms sales took off as a potent political and economic force in the early 1970s, when three things happened. First, President Nixon, bruised from Vietnam, declared that America would no longer send troops to every ally in crisis but would instead send arms and teams of military advisers.