Walking a fine line between condemnation and appeasement, the Clinton administration pressed Pakistan yesterday to establish "milestones" for the restoration of democracy while also expressing willingness to "engage" the country's new military government on issues of mutual concern.

Administration officials told a Pakistani envoy yesterday that the United States is eager to see a timetable for the restoration of the democracy, including a schedule for provincial and national elections, administration officials said. At the same time, the officials emphasized their readiness to work with the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the army chief of staff who last month led the bloodless coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Senior officials told the envoy, former foreign minister Yaqub Khan, that they are eager to secure Pakistan's cooperation on issues relating to its nuclear weapons program as well as Pakistani assistance in dealing with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, which is providing refuge to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.

"We don't accept the coup, but as a practical matter we're going to work to pursue our interests," a senior official said in describing the thrust of the discussions. Khan met yesterday with White House officials and Thomas Pickering, the undersecretary of state.

The administration's mixed message reflects its struggle to balance democratic ideals with national security interests, a task that has been made somewhat easier by Sharif's deep unpopularity among Pakistanis. "It's hard for us to be holier than the pope," the senior official said.

Still, the military takeover poses something of a dilemma for a country that sees itself as a guardian of democratic values. During her recent tour of Africa, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was peppered with questions from African journalists who wanted to know whether Washington's tepid response to the coup signaled American acceptance of military rulers on the African continent.

As a consequence, Albright has written a cable to American ambassadors worldwide offering guidance on how to explain the nuances of the U.S. position, according to a senior official who has read the document. "While some have interpreted what we've said as implicit approval," the official described the classified cable as saying, "there can be no legitimacy to the military suspension of a democratically elected assembly."

The cable goes on to note that the administration's decision to suspend aid to Pakistan, which is required by law in the event of a military takeover, should be read as a "clear and unambiguous" signal of U.S. disapproval.

At the same time, the cable continues, "We believe we have to continue to engage" on issues such as Islamic extremism, drug trafficking and nuclear nonproliferation.

"We cannot . . . do business as usual," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. "We do think it's important to work on issues of concern to our national security."