FOOD AID for the Soviet Union? Leave aside for the moment that it has billions in foreign exchange in its banks, that its arms still support the Afghans and that its nuclear weapons are trained on the United States. It also happens to be a country with supplies from a record harvest already sitting within its borders.

It's a strange situation. The 1990 harvest was huge. But some part of the crop was spoiled or delayed because of the pervasive chaos. Farms, localities and constituent republics have held back another part to wait for prices to rise, to barter for other scarce commodities and services or to bargain for a place in the new economic and political order. The upshot is that fears of winter hunger are widespread. Soviet emissaries are preparing the way for a possible official request for emergency supplies.

Germany has already promised to provide "humanitarian" aid. Grateful for Soviet approval of reunification, the Germans figure food is a good investment in the tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev and the goodwill of the Soviet people. The aid would come from surpluses already in government hands, that is, at no new public expense. If, as expected, other Europeans pitch in, they too could take from surpluses. Europe's agricultural competitors might even be pleased.

Americans, however, have some questions to ask; there is time, since no official request for aid has yet come. There are many, more distressed peoples and countries elsewhere. Is it right for the United States to jump the still relatively affluent Soviet Union to the head of the relief queue? It seems a moral deformation. The rationale -- that it is in the American strategic interest to give Mr. Gorbachev the emergency means to bridge the gap between today's chaos and tomorrow's structural reforms -- needs to be worked out.

Let's assume that somehow the Soviet Union, which can't distribute wheat it already has, will figure out how to distribute wheat it may receive from abroad. That leaves the tough question of whether food aid should be conditioned on Soviet economic change, so that supplies do not simply become a substitute for reform, or plausibly and worse, a hindrance to reform. And should supplies be delivered to the national authorities, whose stock and policies they presumably would boost, or to republic or local authorities who could be expected to apply them to their own designs? Food aid is spoken of as "humanitarian." Actually, nothing is more political.