THE QUESTION of East Timor continues to hover at the edges of the United States' political and moral radar screen. It only begins with the fact that the place is hard to locate: it's an island -- actually, half an island -- in the Indonesian archipelago. Until things came apart in the mid-1970s, it was an obscure outpost of the Portuguese empire. In the locals' struggle for the succession, one side surged ahead and proclaimed independence; but barely a week later, the Indonesian army moved in, using American weapons and diplomatic support, and annexed it. Indonesia is currently friendly and anti-communist, a big oil producer, the most populous Moslem country in the world: all reasons why, informed critics feel, the United States has mostly averted its gaze from what Indonesia has been doing to East Timor. What Indonesia has been doing, these critics say, is mercilessly grinding the people down.

When such reports appear, as they do from time to time in the press or at the occasional congressional hearing, a curious thing happens. Frightful stories are told of massive numbers of Timorese deaths caused by the guns or famine-inducing pacification policies of the Indonesian army. Lately there have been heart-rending accounts of the brutalization of ethnic Chinese trying to depart a place where their community has lived for 100 years. Then the American officials come on, suggesting that the critics' information is out of date and perhaps politically skewed. There is, it is said, no real merit to allegations that the food aid that has been going into the country since last year is being diverted or stolen by Indonesian soldiers. A certain sympathy is solicited for American efforts to induce the reluctant Indonesians to allow international agencies to distribute food and to admit a few foreign visitors. East Timor, after all, has to be fitted into the broader context of American interests in Indonesia.

East Timor exists in a geographical eddy and a political eddy. Indonesia has smarted under the persistent Third World criticism organized by other former colonies, but it has not smarted enough to make the changes that would bring the refugee and relief-agency horror stories to an end. It is very hard to make a strong claim to push East Timor higher up the list of American priorities. But it should also be very hard for American diplomats not to convey to Indonesian authorities, quietly but insistently, that an increasing number of Americans are baffled by Jakarta's policy in East Timor and that it cannot be in Indonesia's interest to let the question fester more.