There are many ways to deal with unpleasant problems. Changing the subject is one.
This week, a Pakistani delegation arrived in Washington to kick off its new "strategic dialogue" with the Obama administration. In recent memory, all visiting Pakistani leaders have been subjected to extensive American lectures about how Islamabad must do more to kill, capture, and prosecute terrorists. As a consequence, news coverage from those visits has focused on thorny challenges in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad, such as Predator drone strikes, Pakistan's frustrating pace of prosecutions against extremist ideologues and terrorist organizers, or the murky legal status of the world's most successful nuclear proliferator, Dr. A.Q. Khan.
This time around,Pakistan's delegation, led by army chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, cleverly changed the subject. He came armed with a fifty-six page book on ways the United States should do more to help Pakistan. Kayani also left his chief spymaster at home, practically eliminating the potential for in-depth counterterrorism debates.
Let there be no mistake, the Pakistani delegation came ready to do business, but not the business that normally sits at the top of the U.S. agenda. Many of the items on Kayani's wish list serve a longstanding Pakistani goal: to resolve strategic challenges posed by India. This diplomatic dance is far from novel. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was also founded on an imperfect coincidence of national interest. Washington used Islamabad to help resist Soviet expansion in the region, while Islamabad used Washington as an external balance against its Indian nemesis.
A good number of the items on Pakistan's agenda are basically non-starters. Chief among them is the request for a civil-nuclear deal like the one President Bush signed with New Delhi. Leaving aside President Obama's commitment to global nonproliferation regimes that bar nuclear trade with Pakistan, it is nearly impossible to imagine a Pakistani deal getting past the U.S. Congress, much less through the consensus-based Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Yet senior Obama administration officials have gamely entertained this and other Pakistani requests, avoiding "no" when "let's keep talking" might do. Their approach has merit, even if Washington misses one opportunity to exert diplomatic pressure on Islamabad. There will be other times for pressure, and the United States also needs to turn a page as part of its broader, long-term effort to cultivate better relations with the people of Pakistan. Washington should show a capacity for listening to requests, not just making them. As long as no untenable U.S. promises were made, no illusions of nuclear deals or American-brokered Kashmir solutions fostered, the cost of listening will have been minimal.