THE White House may be wary about new plans in Europe to aid the Soviets. But George Bush is correct in tempering opposition to such aid and in seeking ways to assist Mikhail Gorbachev. Pressure to consider Soviet aid has been mounting among US allies, mainly West Germany and France. This is understandable. Helping Mr. Gorbachev, especially before a momentous Communist Party congress, makes sense. Moreover, cash seems to be what the Soviet leader wants before agreeing to a reunified Germany attached to NATO.
Bonn has promised Moscow $3 billion in direct aid - with the likelihood of more to come. Some of the German rhetoric about aid to the Soviets as the noble thing to do seems a bit disingenuous. But tangible short-term relief from the West - cash, sausages, and consumer goods - signals the Russian people that a positive shift is under way in the West too. It helps remove a threat.
What it doesn't do is lessen any of the long-term economic and cultural problems that cause Soviet instability in the first place. Aiding the Soviets will be quite a different proposition than aiding ex-Marxist Eastern Europe: The Soviets have not gone through the same ``democratization revolution'' as the East bloc satellites. Nor have the Soviets yet shown they want to move away from a centralized economy.
Beyond direct cash, what should aid to the Soviets mean? Is there any assurance aid will get past the the Soviet bureaucracy or the black-market mafia?
Can Western business know-how help a society still deeply ambivalent about change? A recent visitor to the USSR tells of a deal offered by Western businessmen to buy an old building in Moscow for more money than a similar property would fetch in downtown Manhattan. For inexplicable reasons, the Russians backed out.
Concerns voiced by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney about aid benefiting the Soviet military may be overwrought. But the scenario is hardly impossible.
At a time of severe upheaval in the Soviet Union, with democratic reformers battling conservative hard-liners, the West ought to find an effective aid strategy - credits, an economic ``peace corps,'' the European Bank for Reconstruction and Redevelopment. This will be a top item on the agenda of the upcoming Group of Seven major industrial nations in Houston July 9.
Gorbachev needs to survive the party congress. If he does, Western aid can then be tied to Soviet concessions that will make a new Europe safer.