After years of hesitating, President Bush has now moved to bolster Mikhail Gorbachev by providing him with up to $1 billion in loans for food and other agricultural goods.

Such credits would have made sense some time ago, when perestroika was being introduced and Gorbachev's popularity was soaring. But now they are likely to provoke the kinds of questions that bombarded me recently in Moscow."Why are you Americans propping up the Soviet empire? You supported the democrats against the communists in Eastern Europe. Why don't you do that here?"

Muscovites I talked with contended that a stable, unitary Soviet Union under Gorbachev is no longer a real option. Almost no one had a good word for his policies and, while none expect him to fall tomorrow, all assume his time is running out.

Obviously, this situation presents a dilemma for the United States. Most of Gorbachev's policies have served our interests. But it is not in our interest to prop him up when his own country has turned against him and to end up on the wrong side when he passes from the political stage.

Moreover, if we can smooth the transition to a post-communist era, we can help the Soviets as well as ourselves. No one inside the country or out would benefit from its Lebanonization, which would create anarchy and send a tidal wave of refugees to the West.

What then is the proper response to Gorbachev's requests for aid? Emergency food and medical aid are entirely in order.

But we should channel as little of it as possible through the central government in Moscow: Most of the aid poured into the quicksand of the central supply system will be lost, stolen or allowed to rot. Moreover, our dealing exclusively with the center helps exacerbate tensions between Moscow and the republics and deprives us of leverage in shaping the post-Gorbachev future.

The Bush administration should channel aid - and encourage private agencies to follow suit - to four emerging groups and institutions: the governments of the republics, local governments, new political parties and emergent entrepreneurs.

All four have defects and shortcomings. Yet they, not Gorbachev, are the future. They desperately need our support, and we can influence their development even as we strengthen their hand.

Intensely nationalist republics are hostile not only to Moscow but often to each other and to ethnic minorities within their borders. U.S. assistance to the republics should therefore be earmarked for projects that bring nationalities together and promote respect for human rights.

Gorbachev still insists an open society is his goal. If he were to decide to use force, that would bring on the very civil war that he aims to prevent while offering no incentive to provide sorely needed goods and services.

Moreover, the military forces he used would almost certainly replace him with another leader more to their liking.

It is not for Americans to decide Gorbachev's fate. But less bolstering of him personally and more attention to other emerging institutions would serve Soviet interests as well as our own.