The Bush and Obama teams have both expressed irritation at Islamabad's failure to rein in jihadists, despite the $10 billion in largely military aid from Washington after 9/11 compelled the two capitals into yet another awkward embrace.
Let's keep a few things in perspective, though. That sum of military aid is a mere half of what just one former Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, has received to piece a much smaller nation of Iraq back together.
The $10 billion provided to Pakistan was meant in part to control jihadist movements over a porous Pak-Afghan border. But that border is infinitely more difficult to police than a certain southern border of the world's mightiest nation, which we have yet to control. You would have to imagine that many Pakistani military officials would prefer to swap places with KBR executives.
There is, though, a thorny matter involving Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence apparent success in undercutting Islamabad -- by secretly assisting some jihadist groups that the country has banned. (Google "Pakistan" and "double game" and marvel at the results.)
Daniel Markey of the Council for Foreign Relations has argued persuasively that this seeming treachery is a result of a legitimate Pakistani suspicion of a historic Washington tendency -- to turn from friend to quasi-foe whenever Pakistan stops serving an immediately useful purpose. The ISI and some leaders would thus prefer secretly to keep a few "children of the American-Afghan mujahideen" around to torment neighbors who threaten its security.
It's in this sense that Obama's move to offer Pakistan $1.5 billion in economic aid over the next five years represents a major step forward in public diplomacy, soft power and inner resolve.
Resentments won't heal immediately. My most recent visits to Pakistan were peppered with angry declarations from citizens about how America continues to see how Pakistan has been drained by the influx of millions of refugees from Afghanistan after the U.S.-funded war against the Soviets there. They rage about a sense of powerlessness.
"If America disappeared tomorrow, no one here would complain," one pro-Western businessman told me last September. Another one observed that Pakistanis are grateful for China's many investment projects in Pakistan, which benefit ordinary citizens in a way that American military aid does not.
My last trip to Pakistan was punctuated by almost ending up at the Islamabad Marriott at the moment it was bombed by Talibanic forces. The incident accented the Pakistani gripe that, for all the hectoring from Washingtonians who wring their hands behind gated communities, ordinary Pakistanis pay an unappreciated price, day to day, in the war on terror. Some 6,000 civilians and 2,000 security forces are reported to have been killed during this effort.
Predictably, many Pakistanis blamed India for instigating that bombing, in much the same way that India would finger Pakistan following the Mumbai bombings a few months later. The scorned Pakistani nation watches America lovingly embrace an Indian rival that once happily bedded down with the Soviet Union - all while Pakistan believed that it stood firm as an American Cold War ally. This jilted lover will not come around easily, but she should be wooed with persistence.
So we may have new beginning. Of course, given the corruption in that atrophied nation, Washington would be prudent to provide aid and services directly to Pakistan's marginalized areas, lest the money go to waste.
Still, Obama deserves considerable credit for his balance of carrot and stick in that supremely chaotic part of the world. Following his tough talk about Pakistan in his presidential campaign, his latest moves show less of a sudden willingness to reward failure, and more of a determination to pull Pakistan back up on its own two feet.
It could be a historic act of enlightened self-interest for Americans.