Only nine months ago President Bush spurned suggestions that the United States send food to the Soviet Union not only to fight hunger there but also to help Mikhail Gorbachev stay in the Kremlin.

This week Bush reversed himself. He should have stuck with his original stance. The new position represents the triumph of misguided humanitarianism over common sense.Yes, it would be awkward for Bush to sit on his hands while America's allies in Europe take steps toward sending food to the USSR, where hoarding and rationing have been spawned by severe shortages of meat, potatoes, and dairy products.

But why should the West start coming to the rescue of a government that has not requested such help?

Why should the USSR go to the head of the line when, as The Washington Post reported this week, "there are many more distressed peoples and countries elsewhere." Among them are the people of Afghanistan, whose country was ravaged by Soviet invaders.

Likewise, how much sense does it make to rush food to a country with supplies from a record harvest already within its own borders? Though the 1990 harvest was huge, much of it has been wasted because of serious shortcomings in the Soviet system for distributing it.

Why should anyone think the Soviets suddenly will become more adept at distributing food from outside their country than from within it? Won't foreign food shipments weaken the strongest incentives the Soviets now have to reform their economy along the lines of capitalism?

Moreover, how can the West send food to the USSR without hurting Gorbachev more than helping him? Or does anyone seriously believe that such assistance would not show the Soviet people how much their government depends on the outside world for basic necessities?

Despite all that, it would be heartless just to stand by and watch Soviet citizens starve. But that's not likely to happen. Not when, as the U.S. State Department notes, there are ample supplies of food on the black market in the USSR or at farmers' markets just down the street from empty government stores.

Under the circumstances, the kindest thing the West could do for the Soviet people is to let socialism reap the natural result of its own folly so that it may more expeditiously be replaced by a system that works.