A war between Iraq and the group of allied military forces led by the United States might produce enduring Arab enmity toward Washington and boost the influence of regimes hostile to U.S. interests, according to a number of former high-ranking U.S. diplomats who specialize in Middle East affairs.
The diplomats, who testified during two days of Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings this week, said the Bush administration may not have attached enough credence to the possibility a military victory over Iraq could produce enduring political trouble with Arab citizens in neighboring countries.
"The law of unintended consequences is going to come into play if force is used," said Nicholas Veliotes, a former assistant secretary of state who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1983 to 1986.
Most of the 14 witnesses appearing before the committee argued against any swift move by the United States to initiate a military offensive.
Their arguments appeared to bolster the position of many Democratic legislators who prefer to force Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait by continuing the internationally supported embargo of Iraqi trade for more than a year.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who chaired the hearings, said after the first day of the hearings that there appeared to be broad agreement that "if force is used on January 16" -- the day after a United Nations-backed deadline for Iraq's withdrawal -- "it will be perceived, rightly or wrongly, by the majority of the Arabs and the Arab world as . . . primarily a U.S. undertaking."
Four former assistant secretaries of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs -- who served under presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- told the panel that could stigmatize the United States and complicate its pursuit of long-term stability in the region.
"The fundamental cost of military action is that the U.S. will have undercut its overarching interest in demonstrating the collective security and peaceful resolution of conflict can work," said Harold Saunders, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as the senior State Department official on Middle Eastern affairs from 1978 to 1981.
However, CIA Director William H. Webster said yesterday that the Bush administration was well aware U.S. military action might cause controversy in the region and would only take military action that "our friends among the Arabs can defend and justify."
Saunders told the committee that he disputed statements by some Bush administration officials and independent experts that a peaceful resolution of the dispute is "fuzzy, vague, uncertain, messy, not assured in its outcome, and that in contrast, the military option is near and precise and concrete."
He and several other witnesses said political controversy arising from a war could eventually destabilize the governments of U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, requiring an extended U.S. military presence in the region.
"In winning a war, as we would surely do, we could find ourselves possessing Iraqi territory with no clear way of disengaging," said Robert Hunter, a National Security Council aide from 1979 to 1981. "It's like the old joke of the dog that chases cars. Someday he is going to catch one of them. What is he going to do with it?"
When Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney was asked yesterday in an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee about U.S. plans for the aftermath of a military victory over Iraq, he said, "Everybody's been so busy dealing with the crisis of the moment that there really hasn't been much effort put into that longer range focus." He said "some sort of planning with respect to the security of that area and our friends . . . needs to be done."
Several independent experts said the destruction of Iraq's military capability could lead to its eventual dismemberment or control by radical Shiite Moslems closely allied with Iran. They said political troubles would be enhanced if the conflict damaged Islamic holy shrines in Saudi Arabia or if Israel was deliberately provoked by Iraq into joining the U.S.-led attack.
William Quandt, an NSC staff member from 1977 to 1979, said there will be "two potential winners out of this crisis: One is Syria and one is Iran -- neither governed by regimes which are exactly our kind of folks." He added that, "certainly compared to the costs and the uncertainties that would be entailed by going to war . . . the pursuit of sanctions . . . would make a great deal of sense."
Frank Gaffney, a Reagan administration defense official, was one of several witnesses who warned that delaying military action against Iraq could allow an unacceptable enhancement of Iraq's military capabilities.