Exactly what would it take to get the State Department's South Asia experts to stop promoting an ill-advised trip by President Clinton to Pakistan in March? I shudder to think.
Pakistani help to terrorists does not seem to be enough to overcome the peculiar turn-the-other-cheek style of diplomacy that has flourished in this presidency. It seems in fact to whet the appetite of some to throw the president at the world's most dangerous confrontation and see what turns up.
Clinton and his aides have been secretly debating for weeks whether he should stop over even briefly at the airport near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, during a proposed journey to India and Bangladesh in March.
The subtle pros of a "heart to heart" chat with Pervez Musharraf, the general who seized power on Oct. 12, were from the outset closely balanced against the obvious cons of security and politics: Pakistan's notorious intelligence services are linked to the murderous Osama bin Laden gang in neighboring Afghanistan, and Musharraf has refused to establish a timetable for a return to democracy.
Then came a development that suggests the Pakistanis have been attending the North Korean school of international diplomacy, which stresses that a punch in the nose is the best way to get the Clinton White House to offer you rewards.
In December a Kashmiri terrorist group with a long and clear history of support from the Pakistani military and intelligence services hijacked an Indian airliner to obtain the release of a radical Pakistani Islamic cleric, Maulana Masood Azhar. The hijackers made their escape into Pakistan and then returned to Kashmir.
Pakistan denies it helped the terrorists plan or carry out this particular hijacking, and the Clinton administration has not been able to develop intelligence to the contrary, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin tells me.
But the fingerprints of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency were all over the escape of the hijackers back to Kashmiri territory controlled by Pakistan.
So how did Madeleine Albright's State Department react to the obvious? By dispatching Assistant Secretary of State Karl F. Inderfurth to Islamabad last week to tell Musharraf that the option of a presidential visit to Islamabad was still open.
True, Inderfurth added that the Pakistanis would have to take steps to clean up their act on terrorism, nuclear testing and a return to civilian rule if they want to see Air Force One descend from the clouds and Clinton sit side by side in a VIP airport lounge with the general whose name George W. Bush could not remember in a television pop quiz.
But Inderfurth did not set specific benchmarks of performance in the conversation, and Musharraf did not offer any specific promises to meet U.S. concerns. In the days following the meeting, which was disclosed in the Jan. 25 edition of the New York Times, Afghanistan actually hardened its line against turning bin Laden over for prosecution.
Inderfurth's continuing promotion of the Pakistani stopover was apparent in his explanation to the Times of his refusal to offer benchmarks or warnings to Musharraf about the consequences of a failure to crack down on terrorist groups and to defuse tensions with India over Kashmir:
"To influence Pakistan on democracy, terrorism and nonproliferation, we have to engage them. Our president is our best engager."
That last sentence has to win an award for a political appointee simultaneously buttering up the boss in print and trying to manipulate said boss--in this case the president of the United States--in the cause of making an assistant secretary's life easier with his or her clients.
There may also be a more serious hidden agenda at work here. Musharraf, who was born in India and educated in Britain, is a secularist who impresses Western officials with his relative moderation. He appears to be locked in a power struggle with those who represent the darkest side of the Pakistani regime, such as Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, the director of Inter-Services Intelligence.
But a Clinton visit to shore up Musharraf internally is a risky enterprise from every standpoint. Such a ploy oversells the U.S. ability to transform or even moderate a bad situation that seems to be getting worse. Withholding this visit is the minimum that needs to be done to send a message to Pakistan and other regimes that flout international norms and expect to get rewards.
Engagement is not a self-contained goal or policy. It has to produce results that advance U.S. interests. Pakistan does not pass that simple test.