SHARP LITTLE political dispute has broken out over whether the Reagan administration has moved smartly enough to meet the tremendous famine in Ethiopia. The answer is that the United States has not done as much as it might if Ethiopia were still a friendly country, but it has done much more than it would have if it were doling out aid by strictly political criteria. It is an unlikely subject for Americans to be arguing over in an election campaign, but the dispute will have been useful if it generates further help for those in need.

And Ethiopians, and many other Africans, are in need. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are starving weekly, and millions are threatened in what is described as a crisis of historic proportions. It is terrible. The relief that Western donors now send to Ethiopia can have a life-or-death effect for very great numbers of human beings in distress.

The unfortunate fact remains that it is simply not within the power of these donors to spare Ethiopia the brunt of its government's own decisions over the last 10 years. Growing more food and assuring its proper distribution have not been high priorities for Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. He has had other things on his mind: consolidating his power, making his country the first in Africa to be ruled by a communist party, increasing the strength of his army, and putting down insurgencies in secessionist provinces. Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled from power partly by the political and social effects of a famine in 1973-74, one for which his policies also had a responsibility. This may account for some of Col. Mengistu's slowness to acknowledge that his government is presiding over a national catastrophe -- a slowness that has translated itself into a reluctance to seek timely and ample international assistance. The weather has been bad, but official policies depressing agriculture have also been bad. The colonel has deliberately denied food to people starving in secessionist areas, notwithstanding the effort of the international agencies to pry relief in. In socialist Ethiopia, those who are starving are at the bottom of the power pyramid and have no one to represent them at the top.

Americans have no basis to claim they have done enough by Ethiopia. But the Soviet Union has been the direct sponsor of the Ethopian policies that have aggravated the human and economic costs of the famine. Heat should be put on the Kremlin, which has behaved recklessly and cynically in this situation. It is only now beginning to provide a modicum of relief for the client whose welfare it professes to care about. Still, there is more that this country can do -- and it should.