After dragging its feet for years, Washington has finally decided to put people and principle ahead of political expediency in at least one important case.

We're referring to the recent decision by the United States to send food supplies to starving people in rebel-held areas of the Sudan even though the move is bound to damage relations with the government of that African nation.For five years, the Arab and Moslem government in Khartoum has been locked in a vicious civil war with the Christian and Animist southern third of the vast country.

Since the war began, starvation has claimed an estimated one-million Sudanese, including 260,000 who died in 1988 alone.

Recently, Khartoum raised the prospect of even more deaths by withholding internationally donated food from the rebel areas, expelling four relief agencies, and asking eight others to suspend operations.

But the food wasn't getting through to those who need it. And Khartoum isn't as close an ally of the U.S. as it has been said to be; though the U.S. gives the Sudan $100 million a year to keep Khartoum from getting friendly with Libya, the Sudanese army is reported to have obtained chemical weapons from Libya.

So the U.S. isn't taking much of a political risk by deciding to send food to millions of tribesmen, chiefly civilians, facing starvation.

Meanwhile, a further reappraisal of U.S. relations with the Sudan is in order. Not only has Khartoum moved closer to Libya, but it also has spurned a peace plan worked out by part of the coalition government, reorganized to take a harder line, and tried to play down the seriousness of the famine. Is this really the kind of government with which Washington wants to be associated?