PRESIDENT Bush was pulled many directions at once last week on the question of extending credit guarantees on grain sales to the Soviets. His response was a reasonable one under the circumstances. Mr. Bush praised Mikhail Gorbachev for past accomplishments and promised to try to find some way of providing food aid. Under current law, he can't extend credit unless the recipient nation is judged capable of repaying, a standard the Soviet Union would be hard put to meet.
The president had old friend and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze pleading with him to provide aid, lest hard-liners seize control in Moscow and all hope for reform die. He also had visiting Baltic leaders arguing that aid should be withheld until Mr. Gorbachev adopts a more conciliatory policy toward secession-minded republics.
The United States has an interest in both appeals. The only long-term solution to Soviet economic turmoil is thorough reform along free-market lines. Such reform, hindered by political infighting and bureaucratic resistance, is critical to US-Soviet cooperation. On the other hand, Washington is morally bound to back freedom for peoples who have long been entrapped in the Soviet empire.
Mr. Shevardnadze's plea may have had an element of exaggeration. For all its resistance to change, the Soviet Union continues to lumber toward the revamped system of laws needed before a market economy can emerge. It's unlikely that this process will be reversed, despite the desires of conservatives in the party and the army who would like to shunt the Soviet president aside and turn back the clock.
Bush's willingness to aid the Soviets is less important for immediate economic impact than for symbolism. It indicates that in US eyes Gorbachev remains a crucial partner. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin apparently concurs. Over the weekend he called Gorbachev an ``ally'' of the democratic movement.
The Baltic leaders might not agree, having experienced a brutal crackdown by Moscow in recent weeks. The US shouldn't let up on proclaiming the justice of the Baltics' cause, even as it takes the steps necessary to bolster Gorbachev and clear the way for progress on such important US-Soviet projects as strategic arms reduction and Middle East peace.