Up to a point, President Bush's decision this week to participate in the international effort to help feed the Soviet Union is an exercise in enlightened humanitarianism.

But the exercise is not without its flaws and risks.Despite the long record of Soviet aggression, it's understandably hard for well-fed people elsewhere to just stand by while residents of the USSR suffer the consequences of panic buying and hoarding brought on by the failure of a misguided economic system. The situation is outlined in a column on this page by Mark Frankland of the London Observer Service.

That's the humane part of Bush's decision. The enlightened part consists in providing credits rather than direct food shipments - and in insisting that this help be accompanied by technical expertise to help the Soviets switch to capitalism and work out the distribution snags that turned a healthy USSR harvest into artificial shortages that are an international embarrassment to the Kremlin.

Bush's decision also contains potential benefits for the United States. The U.S. aid should help Mikhail Gorbachev, avoiding or at least delaying his ouster by someone who might turn the clock back to the not-long-gone days of repression in the USSR. Likewise, Bush's move helps American farmers by enabling the Soviets to buy U.S. crops.

Even so, the U.S. aid is still only a bandage, not the major surgery that the Soviet economy needs. The technical experts who go with that aid can't insist that the Soviets eliminate the bottlenecks that left Soviet crops rotting in fields or warehouses, trucks or ports. By extending this aid, the U.S. threw away a lever that was being used to pry a relaxed emigration policy out of the Soviets.

Moreover, if the Soviets fail to repay the $1.3 billion worth of loans being guaranteed by Washington, it's the American taxpayers who will foot the bill. Though the Soviets are said to have a good record for repaying their debts, a country whose economic woes produced full-scale rationing in Moscow and Leningrad is not a safe credit risk.

Despite the rationing, the Soviet Union was not on the verge of famine. Americans could have helped with charity drives like those in Germany, Italy and some other countries. All things considered, private help for the USSR looks better than the public approach being taken by Washington.