IT TURNS OUT there may be a way for the

United States to do more for people starving in Ethiopia after all. The question had arisen as a result of news reports suggesting that the Reagan administration was allowing the rancid state of official American-Ethiopian relations impede famine relief. In the matter of trucks for distribution of available supplies, officials had justified hesitation on grounds that any transport provided to the government, and any supplies, might be diverted to the Ethiopian war effort. This explanation raised the question of whether the administration was allowing politics and bureaucracy to muffle humanitarian concern.

There are a lot of obstacles to the free flow of relief to the people suffering in Ethiopia's afflicted northern provinces. Most of these are obstacles imposed by the Ethiopian government, a Moscow-oriented military regime not loath to use food as a weapon of civil war. The United States has responded to the few and limited direct appeals it has received from the Ethiopian government, supplying the special high-protein foods needed by mothers and children. Washington has also been helping the Ethiopian refugees who have fled into neighboring Sudan.

Still, the United States has appeared to be dragging its feet in response to a particular United Nations appeal of May for transport. To that end, the Agency for International Development now reports it is discussing with Catholic Relief Service, and with other of the private agencies that do the actual food distribution, ways in which local trucks can be leased or rented. The idea is that these methods allow the money to go further and limit the possibility of diversion to military use.

Nothing done by compassionate foreigners can make up for the policy choices of the Ethiopian government or, for that matter, for the stinginess of that government's Soviet patrons. In Ethiopia as elsewhere, Moscow continues to concentrate on furnishing arms, leaving it to the Western countries to pick up the requirements of relief, not to speak of development. All that provides no reason, however, for the United States to fall away from its traditional position that relief of starvation knows no politics.