War Stories

The Wings of a Hawk

Why is Bush selling F-16s to Pakistan?

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.

Second, oil prices soared, pumping floods of cash into the coffers of OPEC countries, whose leaders decided to lavish some of it on a gigantic military buildup. In May 1973, to accommodate this new market, Nixon used his executive powers to waive a congressional prohibition against the sale of sophisticated weapons to underdeveloped countries.

The third event—underlying the other two—was that America’s trade balance showed a net deficit for the first time since 1893. State Department and Pentagon officials started to justify every arms transaction as an act “to strengthen U.S. balance of payments” and create jobs.

As a result of these converging factors, annual U.S. arms sales abroad soared from about $1 billion before Nixon signed the waiver to $11 billion by the time he left office amid the Watergate scandal in 1974. Sales figures have fluttered only slightly, up or down a few billion, ever since.

The current arms deal with Pakistan is fueled, in good part, by the fact that executives at Lockheed Martin have said they’ll have to shut down their Fort Worth, Texas, factory unless more F-16 orders come in by October.

Pakistan was one of the few prospective customers that drew serious political resistance. In 1976, the Senate passed an amendment, sponsored by John Glenn and Stuart Symington, barring U.S. economic and military assistance to countries that were importing or exporting nuclear-weapons materials. In 1979, Carter invoked the Glenn-Symington amendment to cut off such assistance to Pakistan, which had been caught smuggling nuclear designs.

Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan—with its close ties to the anti-Soviet mujahideen—re-emerged as a potential strategic partner. President Ronald Reagan, who stepped up support of the mujahideen, pushed through an amendment allowing him to resume aid and sales to Pakistan for six years, despite the fact that Pakistan was beginning to enrich uranium. Among the items he let Pakistan buy were F-16 fighter jets. The first planes arrived in January 1983.

In 1985, the Senate passed another amendment, sponsored by Larry Pressler, requiring the president to certify annually that Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons before he continued to supply them with weapons or aid. In 1989, as the intelligence became clear that Pakistan had turned the enriched uranium into actual weapons, the first President Bush stopped all orders.

In 1995, President Clinton tried to restore some ties to Pakistan, as part of the nascent war on terrorism. He sold the long-undelivered F-16s to other countries and refunded the money—nearly $700 million—to Pakistan. New weapons, though, were still out of the question. Until now.

The decision will raise new doubts about President Bush’s declared desire to halt the spread of nuclear weapons—and his still more prominent declaration to judge regimes on the basis of their dedication to freedom. Selling Pakistan nuclear-capable fighter jets is an act at odds with both. By potentially setting in motion a new arms race in southern Asia, it also seems at odds with more traditional notions involving the balance of power.