A LOT OF BACKS were being patted in Washington Wednesday -- though they didn't deserve to be. A hastily scheduled presidential meeting with church and secular leaders ended in smiles all around as the president pledged $69 million in emergency aid for Cambodia. But the cold reality behind the recent flurry of speeches and headlines is that it all comes much too late. The money is welcome, though tardy. But no amount of money will help unless the food and medicine it buys get to the people who need them. And unless the diplomatic and logistical situation in Cambodia can be changed dramatically -- and fast -- nothing will get there in time.

In a nutshell, the diplomatic bottleneck is that famine is being used as a weapon in the continuing war in Cambodia -- by both sides. The government in Phnom Penh keeps the quiet negotiations to open up relief channels limping along just enough to prevent the West from completely giving up hope that agreement can be reached. The message from Western diplomats is always the same -- "Things are going better" and "Just a week or two more and we should have an agreement." Phnom Penh has been working this quite successfully for months now, and there is scant reason to think that anything has changed. If any additional proof is needed, it is provided by Phnom Penh's cool reception to the proposal made Wednesday by three U.S. senators to establish a "land bridge" over which aid could be trucked in from Thailand. After an inconclusive discussion that left one senator optimistic and another depressed, the delegation was dismissed with the statement that the Central Committee would consider their proposal at some future, unspecified date.

Compounding the diplomatic problems are staggering logistical difficulties. One thousand tons of food aid are needed daily, not to provide an adequate diet, but to prevent starvation. Cambodia's major port can unload about 240 tons. The unloading equipment at the airport weak huma bodies: boxes must be limited to what one man can manage. Trucks are almost non-existent (the estimate is two per province) and roads are spotty. Trucks that do get loaded with food make beautiful targets for ambush by soldiers of both sides.

The only relief effort that will really make a difference in this situation is a much more committed and imaginative one than those considered thus far.Spending more weeks in quiet negotiations might work, but more likely it will not, and there is no margin for failure.Some proposal has to be made that will break through the diplomatic and logistical barriers at once. It must take into account the miserable fact that none of the governments directly involved in Cambodia really wants the problem solved. So it must be a commitment, from the outside, to do something, not to negotiate something. And it must be announced in front-page news, not in quiet diplomatic discussions. To make it palatable, whatever is proposed should be carried out by the apolitical relief services -- the International Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam and others -- with government financial support, but not military equipment.A direct airdrop -- like that successfully used in the Sahel -- to people located by satellite photography continues to look like the most promising approach, although every possible avenue should be explored.

As it so often is, a pledge of money may be the easiest and cheapest step. The true measure of the West's commitment to prevent the extinction of the Cambodian people will be the effort it makes to ensure that the money is well spent.