PRESIDENT BUSH now has taken directly on himself the responsibility for the lives and futures of all those millions of Soviet citizens who want to leave their country. The duty now becomes his not to feed them but to free them, not to save their government but to allow them to escape from it.
Whether Bush acknowledges it or not, that is the moral and political consequence of his decision to send $1 billion worth of food on credit to the Soviet Union without condition -- and to channel all of it directly through the faltering government of Mikhail Gorbachev.
The American public has never questioned the plain human importance of sending food to the passengers of the foundering communist ship.
But before we break our arms clapping ourselves on the back in admiration of our humanitarian souls, one moment's pause. That generosity of spirit does not always extend to people who are not white or European.
The president and the American people have shown no uncontrollable passion about feeding starving Sudanese or Bangladeshis. But let that pass -- for the moment.
The question about helping the Soviet Union was never whether, but how, when and through whom. Those questions remain and grow more important by the day.
Under the Jackson-Vanik law, which Bush waived, credit was not supposed to be extended to any country until it guaranteed and legalized the right that every American takes for granted -- the right to get up, pack up and get out. Gorbachev has failed for five years to allow that to all Soviet citizens.
For more than a year, specific legislation has been stalled in Moscow, waiting for his action. He knows the line would stretch millions long, from Leningrad to Vladivostok.
Happily for Soviet Jews, for the state of Israel and for the cause of freedom, Gorbachev is permitting Soviet Jews to leave for Israel by the thousands.
But the hope of those who want freedom for all the Soviet people and the ethical meaning of the law was that the Jewish exodus would be the beginning of an era of guaranteed free Soviet emigration, not its end. It does not strike me as becoming for Israeli leaders or American Jewish organizations or anybody else to say "I'm aboard, Jack, pull up the gangplank."
And this is critical to remember: Almost every day Gorbachev tightens a restriction here, orders a clampdown there. The alert and valuable Center for Security Policy in Washington points out that on Nov. 27 he gave the Soviet armed forces the legal authority for a crackdown against Soviet civilians whenever he chooses to order it.
Three days later, the KGB created a special organization to order the distribution of food. The very same day, Gorbachev authorized communist-run "workers' committees" to monitor food distribution in cooperation with the KGB, and to hold kangaroo courts. And so on and so on.
The democratic opposition to Gorbachev -- and more and more Western specialists on the Soviet Union -- fear that the inability of the Kremlin to govern in the face of public contempt will bring a national crackdown in six to eight months, maybe earlier.
Meanwhile, delegations to the United States of Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians and Balts plead that at least some American aid be sent directly to the Soviet people through local governments and democratic political organizations.
Ask any Soviet citizen if he or she trusts the shattered communist central government to distribute foreign aid when it cannot even distribute food grown in the Soviet countryside.
Despite signs of a coming crackdown, why did Bush waive the longtime American condition of free emigration?
Why did he refuse the fervent requests that some aid go directly to opponents of the Soviet system, not just its panicky officials? Despite Soviet denial, was Kremlin political support in the Persian Gulf involved -- maybe just a tiny bit?
For friends of the Soviet people, the goal should not be to stop American food aid, but to try to make sure that it is used by the right people for the right reasons.
Wisely, the president acted with some caution. He put a six-month time limit on the free-emigration waiver.
If a Gorbachev crackdown does not come earlier, Bush has until May 1991 to live up to an old promise made to all imprisoned people: The United States will not allow American assistance to become a barrier to freedom instead of a path.