It's in our interest to sell food to Central and Eastern Europe. It's possible that famine in the coming winter could impel great numbers of Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians to move westward toward Central and Eastern Europe. President Bush is now weighing various recommendations to deal with this problem. Clearly, it is in the U.S. interest to help the struggling new democracies in Central Europe -- in particular Poland, with its long Soviet border -- avoid such a further threat to their difficult process of change.

The basic grain commodities that this country can provide in ample quantities are wheat and corn, the prices of which have dropped sharply in the past several months. In ordinary circumstances, providing the Soviets with commodity credits to permit them to purchase more wheat to make bread should mean fewer hungry Soviet citizens and therefore less likelihood of hunger-driven movements of populations. Unfortunately, though, the decision facing the president is far from being that simple.

First of all, the Soviets, entering an abundantly supplied world wheat market, have numerous offers to provide them with wheat on easy terms. Like us, the Soviets had a bumper wheat crop -- an estimated 230 million metric tons -- but they no longer believe it will sustain a sufficient supply of bread until the next harvest. Obtaining wheat, it seems, is the easy part of the problem in the U.S.S.R. Getting it off fields, trucks and ships into safe storage, onto trains, to flour mills, to bakeries and finally to retail outlets -- that is the problem.

Recently arrived Soviet observers report that that there are now more than 3,000 identified gangs in the U.S.S.R., some of them engaged in protection rackets aimed against the despised new entrepreneurial class running "cooperative" private enterprises, others disrupting -- at gunpoint -- various links of the food chain for profit. Even legal enterprises, such as collective farms, are apparently not regularly delivering wheat or other food products to the usual purchasers but instead are awaiting a better price than the government now offers. Both categories are apparently prime targets of law enforcement by the recently reshuffled leadership of the Interior Ministry.

Under these circumstances, permitting the Soviets to buy U.S. wheat on favorable Commodity Credit terms, as they have apparently requested, is not a humanitarian response as much as it is the defense of market share by American wheat growers. Distressed by a price level near a 10-year low, these farmers fear that the expected 1.2 million ton Soviet wheat purchase this year under the U.S.-Soviet Long Term Grain Agreement may not occur if we do not match other supplier nations' terms.

We are damned if we do provide wheat on favorable credit terms with accusations that we are pretending to a humanitarian impulse while actually acting to protect our export markets. We are damned if we don't provide the credits with charges that we are indifferent to the interests of hungry Soviets, to fragile East European transformation processes and to U.S. farmers.

The president no longer can hide behind the legal requirement of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik legislation, which requires that he attest to the existence of freedom of emigration prior to granting a Communist nation most favored nation status. Just this past week the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, a confederation of more than 300 Jewish organizations, said that it would support Bush's waiving the trade restrictions linked to the free emigration of Soviet Jews.

What is to be done, as the now discredited Lenin once asked? For starters, the president should disarm his critics, waive Jackson-Vanik on the grounds that the Soviets are permitting all the emigration that other nations will accept and then call a spade a spade. In support of our humanitarian impulse, he should look to the private voluntary organizations such as Americare, CARE, Project Hope, the Armenian Relief Fund and the Baltic American organizations now delivering food packages in the U.S.S.R. as "points of light" that should be helped to shine brighter. To the degree they have established reliable channels, the president should make available to them appropriate government-owned food for peace commodities suitable to their programs, such as wheat flour or powdered milk.

If medical supplies are seriously short in the U.S.S.R. or are needed in neighboring nations at which Soviet refugees arrive, the president should offer to help with any surplus stocks we might have in Europe that are not needed for use in a potential Persian Gulf conflict. But he should do so only if we can be sure they get to the people who need them and not be diverted and exploited for personal or criminal profit.

The level at which initial American government assistance is set should be calibrated with what our European friends, both governmental and private, are doing. We don't need to try to outdo them in addressing all the world's destabilizations. This one is on their doorstep, conveniently near the vast surpluses their high agricultural subsidies have developed (to the detriment of our farmers and our dollar).

The strong German response suggests that this is recognized in Europe, and the European Community's Rome meeting this week will give us further indications in this regard. If they take a strong lead, we should join in, not overwhelm, the effort and urge American private voluntary organizations to do so as well. And we must try to make sure it is a coordinated effort with proper safeguards against the great risks of misappropriation within the U.S.S.R. It should also be understood that resources committed to this exercise will be redirected as necessary from the Soviet Union to any nations that begin to receive substantial numbers of Soviet refugees from hunger.

If our impulse is export promotion, which is legitimate enough, the president should look carefully at our level of risk in extending credits. What is the current debt exposure of the U.S.S.R.? Does the present tugging away from the Moscow center by the republics affect Soviet creditworthiness? The level of risk we accept for purposes of export promotion or market share in a country that may soon be more than one country should be soberly assessed. The competing interests of American farmers and American taxpayers on this issue overshadow the concern for hungry Russians, whose easy-credit wheat will come from somewhere else if it doesn't come from us.

What the president needs is a set of measures reflecting a prudent degree of defense of our farmers, concern for progress toward free emigration of Soviet citizens, support for a characteristic American humanitarian outreach to hungry people, a clearly perceived and stated interest in the stability of the U.S.S.R. and of the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, and a recognition that this interest should be even greater in Western Europe. These elements should, moreover, be frankly presented in a way that Moscow -- as it attempts to restore effective distribution systems -- cannot use as a license to roll back legitimately acquired rights and freedoms, especially in places in which we have never recognized its presence as legitimate. The writer is a program director for the Atlantic Council of the United States and a former foreign service officer.