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Stirrings of life on Capitol Hill: Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has introduced a bill to stop distribution of $3 billion in aid that Congress appropriated for Pakistan this year until the State Department certifies that Pakistan was not harboring Osama bin Laden.

Unless it were to serve as a rubber stamp, such a bill could be a step toward long overdue accountability on Pakistan. It at least offers a way to call out the pathological inertia that drives the U.S.-Pakistani relationship not forward, but in circles, causing dizzy policymaking. Even after Pakistan appears to have been caught in flagrante delicto with Public Enemy No. 1, House Speaker John Boehner, for example, was still prattling on about Pakistan being “critical to breaking the back of al-Qaida.” Like the battered spouse who can’t see what’s wrong with another shiner, Boehner insisted: “This is not a time to back away from Pakistan. We need more engagement, not less.” He also said: “We both benefit from having a strong bilateral relationship.”

He’s half right. With $20 billion in U.S. aid filling Pakistani coffers since 9/11, I see how Pakistan benefits. But I don’t see how the U.S. benefits – unless “partnering” with Pakistan while it supports four militant jihad networks in and around Afghanistan, or paying Pakistan billions while it more than doubles its nuclear arsenal, are things that count as benefits. If they do, the attacks on 9/11 were a brilliant stroke of luck.

This week, I heard an expert panel hosted by The National Interest magazine discuss aspects of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, so far the sleeper topic in this post-bin Laden era. I got the same sense of inertia, that U.S.-Pakistani relations are our permanent ball and chain, coming from speakers and some audience members alike. You can’t just turn your back on Pakistan’s 200 million people and 100 nuclear weapons, a war college professor told me, just as though the USA were a mouse locked in a death-gaze with a boa constrictor. Why not? We certainly turned on a dime when it came to breaking with Egypt and Libya, both of which yielded jihad intelligence, peace with Israel in Egypt’s case and a cache of nuclear weaponry from Libya now in Oak Ridge, Tenn. – greater benefits than anything coming out of Pakistan.

But like hostages self-handcuffed to Pakistan’s nukes, we remain locked in a dysfunctional relationship. There is a great irony in this given that Pakistan remaining nuclear-free was once the criterion for U.S. aid in the first place. This was the crux of the 1985 Pressler Amendment (named for Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D.) that required the president to certify annually that Pakistan did not have an explosive nuclear device as a condition of U.S. aid, and which halted the flow of U.S. government aid to Pakistan from 1990 to 1994.

This law should have regulated all related nuclear anti-proliferation policy, but it was not to be. Both the Bush (the father) and the Clinton administrations chafed at it, seeking ways around it, undermining the carrot-stick order the law set until finally the Clinton administration was able to end sanctions on Pakistan in 1995. As the New York Times noted at the time, the Clinton White House “argued that it is more important to improve relations with a country that it calls a large, moderate Islamic democracy in a troubled region than to punish Pakistan for building a weapons arsenal that it is not about to dismantle.”

In other words, thanks largely to the first Bush and Clinton White Houses, the United States lost this battle of wills and set out to “improve relations” by paying tribute to the victor. This, of course, didn’t translate into leverage, either. After-the-nuclear-fact sanctions went back into effect in 1998 when India and Pakistan both tested nuclear bombs, but after 9/11, George W. Bush had the bright idea that Pakistan, despite ties to the Taliban organization then sheltering al-Qaida, was the perfect ally for the “war on terror.”

Billions of dollars later, we know how that story came out, but is it written in stone? That’s the question Rep. Poe’s Pakistan Accountability Act at least gives us pause to consider, whether we really have to remain in (and pay for) a sham alliance with a failed nuclear state on the Other Side – forever.

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