OPPONENTS of the war in the Persian Gulf have warned against the danger of setting in motion forces that the United States neither understands nor controls. Many fear widespread radicalism in the Arab world and toppling of pro-Western governments, coupled with worldwide terrorism. These may yet come to pass - but the most disturbing and unintended consequence may be developing in the Soviet Union. The Bush administration may have inadvertently provoked a resumption of the cold war: By prosecuting a massive air war against Iraq's military and industrial capability instead of directly liberating Kuwait. By issuing statements indicating an intention to maintain a long-term presence in the Middle East. By inadvertently inflicting highly visible civilian casualties in Baghdad. The Bush administration may have done what even the most conservative analysts thought impossible only a year ago. The hands of hard-liners in the Soviet military and intelligence communities has been strengthened by what looks to them like US expansionism in an area which has long been considered critical to Soviet security. The war with Iraq has given new credibility to those in the Soviet Union who have been calling the US an expansionist and imperialist power which can't be trusted. This faction - which can fairly be called Stalinist - has been relatively quiet during most of Gorbachev's rule. Yet it has been noticeably resurgent recently in the harsh treatment of the Baltic states and policy statements suggesting the US may be exceeding the United Nations resolutions in its prosecution of the war. And most recently it was evident in the improbable - if not laughable - allegation that ``unnamed Western banks'' had tried to further disrupt the Soviet economy. One distinguishing characteristic of American foreign policy has been a consistent failure - or unwillingness - to understand and appreciate other cultures and political systems. This point has been made repeatedly regarding the effect of this war on Arab nations. In addition, many Soviets would be deeply alarmed at the sight of a vast American armada blasting Iraq back to the 18th century, amid official suggestions that the US plans to reconstruct and militarily supervise the region for the foreseeable future. IRAQ is a former Soviet client, as are other nations in the region. The Middle East is in the Soviet backyard. Moscow cared enough about it to wage a long, bloody war in Afghanistan. It is only natural that some in the USSR suspect that the US is using this war as a pretext to establish control over the region - just as there are many in this country who never fail to see the worst in every Soviet action. It was this spirit on both sides that fueled the cold war and threatened the world with nuclear destruction. One would have thought that reasonable minds on both sides would have tried to keep these voices silent by easing tensions to avoid the appearance of a threat. Gorbachev's reforms remain fragile and in need of reinforcement if they are to become institutionalized in Soviet politics. Yet as obvious as this dimension of the Gulf war may be, it seems to have been given insufficient consideration in the isolated inner circle that surrounds President Bush. The weeks and months ahead will tell whether the Gulf war will reignite the cold war. The spark could spread from emerging US-Soviet differences over the conduct of the war against Iraq and terms to resolve it. If tensions between Washington and Moscow continue to increase, Bush loyalists will blame the Soviets and disclaim responsibility. Denying the linkage between even the most obviously connected international issues seems to have become a Bush reflex. Yet it's hard to imagine that history will fail to see the relationship. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/emcke.