A new kind of war in the homeland of the world's oldest civilization illustrated dramatically last week how swiftly the world is changing.

Because of shifts in world politics, a single nation, Iraq, is surrounded by enemies from every direction, with no ally worthy of the name anywhere to provide supplies, a safe rear area or sanctuary or even strong political support.

Backed by 12 U.N. Security Council resolutions, the United States leads a military coalition of the major Western European countries and the most powerful Arab states. It is virtually a world-sponsored war against a pariah nation, even though the United States provides most of the leadership and fighting forces.

Before the demise of the Cold War in the late 1980s, it is nearly certain that the Soviet Union would have come to the aid of Iraq, with which it forged close political and military ties over many years, to oppose the United States and its NATO allies.

Soviet backing for Iraq would have made the current situation as difficult as the Korean and Vietnam wars, when Moscow provided unending supplies of weapons to America's enemies, or as dangerous as the 1973 Middle East war, when Moscow's threat to send troops to help its beleaguered ally, Egypt, prompted a worldwide U.S. military alert and fears of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation.

The fact that the coalition could bring together such diverse states as Britain, France and Egypt (which fought each other over the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956), along with the United States, Syria, Australia, Senegal, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, is remarkable.

The second dramatic change from past patterns is in the sophisticated technology employed in the U.S. air attacks so far. Retired Col. Trevor Dupuy, a military historian who has examined all the wars in history, said the extensive use of "smart bombs" and electronically guided cruise missiles is an advance in warfare comparable to Alexander the Great's use of longer spears and mobile catapults, the forerunner of artillery, in the same area of the world 2,300 years ago.

In the battle of Arbela in what is now northern Iraq in 331 B.C., Alexander used his new weapons and unexpected tactics to defeat the Persian army and become the unchallenged leader of that part of the world.

The high-tech, non-nuclear weapons being unleashed against Iraq are, for the most part, products of the 1970s that were not used as effectively or as extensively in the past.

"There were many failures at first. It took time to iron out the bugs, to understand them and integrate them," noted Barry Blechman, a former U.S. official and defense analyst.

Among the reasons for the reported effectiveness of the initial air campaign was another nearly unprecedented circumstance: The American command and its allies had five months to carefully survey targets and prepare their battle plan before striking with tactical surprise.

From the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2 to the expiration of the U.N. deadline for Iraqi withdrawal on Jan. 15, it has been a slow-motion crisis, providing abundant time for military preparations.

Finally, how the world observed the start of battle in the Persian Gulf last week illustrates the instantaneous global impact of international mass communications.

Vietnam has been considered the first television war, and there is no doubt that the immediacy of broadcast news via satellite had a powerful impact on the American public. However, the initial phase of the Iraqi engagement has gone beyond the experiences of Vietnam in several important respects.

Unlike Vietnam, the first days of the current war are being reported nearly instantly in "real time." Although some broadcasts from Vietnam left the impression of live action, this was not the case. The first trans-Pacific communications satellite had gone up not long before the American entry into the war, but there were no ground stations in Vietnam.

Film of military engagements was flown out of the war zone, usually to Tokyo, where it was edited and then sent by satellite to U.S. network headquarters in New York for broadcast to the public.

The profusion of satellite up-links and the technology for instantaneous global switching made possible the dramatic audio reporting by the Cable News Network's reporting team in the midst of attack in Baghdad, the audio and video reporting of bombing alerts in Israel and the instantaneous coverage of military briefings in Saudi Arabia and other war-related developments.

Prof. Larry Lichty, who studied the uses of television in Vietnam and is now director of media studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, said that because of satellite communications and international switching, "a viewer in Louisiana knew just as much about the {first} missile attack on Israel as the president did" at the time it happened, and the American public watching their living room sets "knew more than 99 percent of the soldiers waiting in the desert for their assignments."

Partly because it was a slow-motion crisis followed by a planned event, the extent of television coverage has been unprecedented. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, about 2,600 Persian Gulf crisis stories appeared on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news programs from Aug. 2, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, to the first U.S. and allied attacks last week, taking up about half of the evening news air time in that long period.

Moreover, all major networks devoted more than 40 hours of nearly continuous coverage from the start of the war (which occurred at network evening news time Wednesday) until they returned to near-normal programming Friday afternoon.

No other news event in history has been given such heavy U.S. television coverage, according to the center, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 a close second.

The worldwide availability of CNN and its round-the-clock format produced another little-noticed fact of the new age: The crisis is being seen nearly everywhere through an American lens, focused heavily on U.S. military briefings and other official pronouncements and dominated by American viewpoints.

In some nations, according to Paul Kreisberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, CNN's broadcasts are being used in ways no one expected; for example, a radio station in Nigeria is broadcasting CNN's audio transmission live, making the war accessible to even the tiniest villages.

The global nature of the world economy, especially the oil and arms markets, is also illustrated by this crisis.

Were it not for these factors, observed Prof. John Lewis Gaddis of Ohio University, a historian of the contemporary world, a small Third World nation such as Iraq could never have acquired sufficient money, weapons and regional clout to challenge the rest of the world by invading its oil-rich neighbor.

The euphoria of the past days in the United States and allied countries has temporarily overshadowed the news of a growing U.S. economic crisis at home and in international markets.

"This may be a last hurrah" for U.S. power unless the administration and Congress take the occasion to make major adjustments in economic policy, said Prof. Robert Gilpin of Princeton University, a scholar of war and change.

"Militarily, it could be a great triumph, but we still have to come to terms with the economic situation that's staring us in the face. Economics remains our central problem," Gilpin said.