Why the President Will Go to Pakistan

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Just call me Bill.... President Clinton believes in bringing a personal touch to foreign policy, and that may have been one of the most important considerations in his decision, announced Tuesday, to visit Pakistan in the course of his trip to the Indian subcontinent beginning March 18. Last year's military coup that ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, along with Pakistan's record on terrorism, had caused Washington to consider leaving Pakistan off the itinerary, which would have been a propaganda coup for India and Bangladesh, the other stops on his tour. "President Clinton feels very strongly that it's important to maintain direct personal relationships with foreign leaders, particularly with leaders of countries as prone to crisis as Pakistan is," says TIME Washington correspondent Massimo Calabresi. "He was particularly struck by the effect his personal relationship with Nawaz had in allowing the U.S. to persuade Pakistan to withdraw from Kargil last July [after they'd crossed onto the Indian side of the disputed Kashmir border]. He clearly believes it's important to build such a relationship with the new leadership in order to make a positive contribution to resolving future crises."

The fact that the current Pakistani leader, General Parvez Musharraf, took power in a military coup that ousted Nawaz may have created an obstacle to the meeting — at least at the level of appearances — but Washington has a long tradition of close cooperation with Pakistani strongmen, recognizing also perhaps that the prospects for stability may be greater under military rule than they were under Nawaz's corrupt civilian administration. President Clinton will go through the motions of urging a speedy return to civilian rule, but terrorism remains the most important point of contention between the U.S. and the country that remains the key to its efforts to apprehend Osama bin Laden in neighboring Afghanistan. "While U.S. counter-terrorism officials were wary of cutting Pakistan off altogether, they're also pretty unhappy that Pakistan hasn't moved on some very big issues Washington has raised with them," says Calabresi. Pakistan has, for example, shown no inclination to comply with the U.S. request that it cut its ties with the Kashmir's Harkat ul-Mujahedeen organization, listed by Washington as a terrorist group and held responsible for the Christmastime hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Afghanistan. Still, President Clinton believes he's better off talking to the Pakistanis directly, looking them in the eye.