Speaking after a two-hour meeting with Ms Bhutto, President Clinton said what had happened was "not fair" to Pakistan. But he could promise no more than to start talks with Congress on modifying the embargo, imposed on Islamabad 1990 in an effort to slow the ever more threatening nuclear arms race on the Indian subcontinent.
Publicly Ms Bhutto professed herself "encouraged" by Mr Clinton's remarks. But there has been no mistaking her feeling Pakistan has been "betrayed" by the US, now that the Soviet threat is no more. Pakistan had fufilled its "Contract with America", she said in a television interview, citing Islamabad's support for the Afghan guerillas who had fought Soviet occupation, and how Gary Powers' ill-fated U-2 had taken off in 1960 from Pakistani soil. "Obviously we want either the planes or the money."
But the end of the Cold War has destroyed the old equations in South Asia. Once Pakistan and the US were natural allies, against the Soviet Union and its good friend India, Pakistan's sworn foe. But Washington is trying to mend fences with India, in a world in which nuclear proliferation is a far greater worry than a defunct Communist threat.
Under mounting political pressure, Ms Bhutto badly needs some concession to show her radical Islamic opponents that close ties with the US are still worthwhile. Hence her blunt demands for the release of the F-16s, to create a strategic "level playing field" in the region.
But the US can hardly relent if it is not to jeopardise its delicate efforts to secure an extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Pakistan refuses to sign. Ms Bhutto this week denied that Pakistan had built a bomb, but acknowledged it had the capacity to do so.Reuse content