ON humanitarian grounds, one can only applaud the readiness of the United States and other nations to provide food and medical aid to the Soviet Union. Some predict that this winter will be a time of severe privation for portions of a Soviet populace whose economy, particularly its food-distribution system, verges on collapse. In the face of genuine want, food and pharmaceuticals should no more be political footballs in East-West relations than in Ethiopia or the Sudan. Yet Washington's decision last week to furnish Moscow with $1 billion in credit for grain purchases and to send medical supplies to the Soviets raises political questions that can't go unasked.
Was it wise, for instance, for President Bush to waive the Jackson-Vanik amendment? That 1974 law denied favorable trade terms to the Soviet Union as long as Moscow restricts emigration. It's true that Jackson-Vanik was aimed primarily to assist Soviet Jews struggling to exit, and that the USSR has thrown wide the gates to the former Jewish refuseniks: 150,000 Soviet Jews have emigrated to Israel this year.
Yet despite repeated Soviet promises to enact a pending bill allowing any Soviet citizen to leave, the bill still languishes, stalled by officials who fear a mass exodus and brain drain. Freedom of movement is a fundamental right, and the United States must continue to press Moscow to fulfill its promises.
Another question: Should food aid be channeled through the central government, as planned, or distributed directly to the most needy people through regional and local agencies? One reason for the US aid, of course, is to show support for Mikhail Gorbachev's reform efforts, and to bolster stability in the USSR at a time of growing political chaos. But Washington should avoid hitching its Soviet policy too tightly to Mr. Gorbachev, who many regard as no longer the champion of genuine political and economic reform.
It is also worrisome that the new international aid comes amid signs of a possible crackdown on political diversity, and at a time when the KGB has asserted responsibility for food distribution.
Mr. Bush was right to open the door to Soviet participation in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, while stopping short of full membership for Moscow. The expertise of the international lending organizations can immediately help guide the transition to a market economy in the USSR, and, in time, their funds will be essential in revitalizing the Soviet economy. But money should flow only when Soviet economic reforms are sufficiently advanced to preclude massive waste of such funds.