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For four decades the North Atlantic Treaty Organization kept the peace in Europe. It was an extraordinary achievement of trans-Atlantic cooperation.

Now NATO may be at the end of its useful life. Its credibility, and very likely its raison d'etre, died under Serbian assault on the town of Bihac in Bosnia.The world's most powerful military alliance was committed to forceful action - air attacks - to prevent military assaults on the declared safe area of Bihac. But NATO did nothing while Gen. Ratko Mla-dic, the Bosnian Serb commander, pounded the town with artillery and sent his troops into the supposedly protected zone.

The excuse for NATO's inaction was that its aircraft had not received a go-ahead from the chief of the U.N. force in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose. No longer bothering to conceal his indifference to Serbian aggression, Sir Michael vetoed proposed raids.

Many blame the United Nations for NATO's inaction, at Bihac and elsewhere in Bosnia. Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., soon to be majority leader, said: "I think the U.N. ought to get off of NATO's back, and let NATO take care of the Serbian aggression in Bosnia."

But that view misses the central political reason for the West's failure in Bosnia: Key members of NATO, Britain and France, did not want to take vigorous action. They went along with NATO decisions to act more forcefully, but with the proviso that any step be subject to veto by the United Nations. And the U.N. force, with its "impartial humanitarian mission" in Bosnia, tended to object every time.

Anthony Lewis

New York Times News Service