If NATO is such a pitiful, helpless giant, why does everyone want to join it?

Good question. It is raised by, of all people, Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."Shali," as he likes to be called, was drafted this week for diplomatic duty, adding a touch of khaki to the pinstripe suits now descending on Europe in advance of President Clinton's visit there for the NATO summit next week.

The objective of this diplomatic offensive is to find a nice way to hang a "no vacancy" sign on NATO's front door. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic want in, but there are ample reasons why they cannot be admitted at the moment - the largest of which is Russia, which would take geopolitical offense.

But why would anyone want to join an organization that has become so demonstrably ineffective now that the Cold War is over?

Shalikashvili's answer is that NATO is not ineffective. NATO is good. NATO is strong.

Look at Bosnia.

"Look what was reported in the press just last year, how many hundreds of thousands you all prophesied would die in Bosnia," he told a briefing at the White House just before he left for Europe. "And yet those casualties did not occur because of, really, the extensive humanitarian effort that continued and continues today."

Americans are "flying every day into Sarajevo and are air-dropping food," he said, while European allies are escorting humanitarian convoys. Meanwhile, a NATO-enforced embargo against Serbia is working, creating real hardships and shortages; the U.S.-enforced no-fly-zone over Bosnia is keeping fixed-wing planes in their hangars; and the Serbian aggression has not spread southward into Macedonia.

There are, of course, thousands - including non-combatants, women and children - who are dying in Bosnia as the people of the Balkans continue killing each other. That is a "frustration" to NATO, said Shalikashvili, but think of how many have been kept alive.

That line of reasoning could inspire headlines: "Thousands Land Safely as Airline Crash Kills 250." "Midwest Floods Leave Most Americans Dry."

The airdrop and other missions in Bosnia have been difficult and dangerous assignments. But there is no way Bosnia can be counted as a NATO success story.

Least of all by Eastern Europeans.

Twice in this century, the West left Poles, Czechs and Hungarians to the mercy of aggressors - first Hitler, then Stalin. Promises were made. Promises were not kept.

Why, then, would these nations feel any more secure if NATO's boundaries were pushed eastward?

Based on NATO's history since the collapse of communism, if there were a crisis, the Eastern Europeans could count on the West for plenty of Meals-Ready-to-Eat while they are being shelled, but no divisions.

The likelihood is that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic want NATO membership simply because the alternatives aren't so good. NATO is better than an alliance with Ukraine, which is unstable and economically weakening, or - horrors - resumption of the relationship with Russia.

Bit of a strain to construe this as a compliment to NATO. A frank admission by this organization of its shortcomings - the worst of which is that it has no definable purpose in life except to be there and absorb funds - would probably be the best step to its rehabilitation.

But don't stay up waiting on CNN to bring you that news. Instead, what the world probably will be treated to next week is another feast of self-congratulation, accompanied by appropriate regrets for the dead and dying in the Balkans and vague assurances of friendship and understanding to the Eastern suitors.