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President Clinton went too far Wednesday when he commiserated with visiting Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and promised to urge Congress to soften the law thwarting the sale of U.S. arms to Pakistan.

Instead, Congress should stand firm, leave the law untouched and even consider keeping the money Pakistan already has paid for American weapons it won't receive. These steps would send a loud and clear message that Washington is serious about keeping more nations from getting nuclear bombs. Such deterrence is the purpose of the law involved.At first glance, it might seem that Washington has pulled a fast one by refusing to refund the money and failing to deliver the $1.4 billion worth of weapons Pakistan has paid for.

But Pakistan's problems are largely of its own making.

Here's the situation: A 1985 law known as the Pressler Amendment bans U.S. aid and arms sales to Pakistan unless the president certifies that the government in Islamabad does not have a nuclear weapons program. But Pakistan ignored the ban and built components for several nuclear bombs in the 1980s. In 1990, after years of threats, the Bush administration finally began enforcing the ban.

Bhutto was warned in early 1990 that if Pakistan kept developing nuclear weapons it could forfeit both the U.S. hardware and its own money. But her government went ahead anyway on the mistaken assumption that the United States would wave the sanctions because of the two nations' previous close relations.

This episode has some pointed lessons for Washington as well as the obvious one for Islamabad about the limits to U.S. patience. One of them is just how difficult it is to persuade nations to forgo nuclear weapons, particularly when a hostile neighbor won't abandon its own nuclear efforts. We're referring, of course, to the long rivalry between Pakistan and India.

Still another lesson to be learned involves the folly of the grossly over-grown U.S. effort to peddle con-ven-tion-al American weapons throughout the world. This effort has made the United States by far the largest arms merchant in the world, far out-distancing second-place Russia. By most estimates, the United States now supplies more than half of the arms sold worldwide.

Never mind that this trade often saps poor countries of money they could otherwise use to build badly needed schools, hospitals, roads and bridges. Never mind that many of the buyers - particularly in Latin America - face no threats from any of their neighbors. Never mind that in some global hotspots - most notably the Middle East - U.S. weapons often end up in the hands of American allies who use this lethal hardware to kill each other.

Instead, all that evidently matters to Washington is the opportunity to create jobs in the United States by lining the pockets of arms manufacturers. What unconscionable short-sightedness.

Washington would face fewer embarrassments like the current one with Pakistan if only the United States would sharply curtail its arms deals. America doesn't need to be the world's leading merchant of death in order to preserve its own national security. Instead, how about trying by both precept and example to become the world's leading champion when it comes to beating swords into plow-shares?