THE NEOCONSERVATIVES rose to prominence largely on their claims to foreign-policy mastery. In dealing with revolutions that imperil dictators friendly to the United States -- revolutions in places like the Philippines -- they prescribed a definitive solution: Stand by your strongman.

But as the authoritarian Marcos regime fell, so did the neoconservative theory. Some neoconservatives made a last stand on the op-ed pages, apologetically defending Marcos. But the Reagan administration, confronted with one of its greatest foreign policy crises, eventually followed a strategy that ignored the neoconservatives' formula. Though the neoconservatives offered themselves as the administration's instructors, their influence at the crucial moment proved to be virtually nil.

In 1980, Jeane Kirkpatrick, a scholar whose specialty was Peronist Argentina, presented a full-blown theory, published in Commentary magazine, attributing the fall of the Nicaraguan and Iranian autocrats to the Carter administration's "lack of realism." She derided the idea that "deep historical forces," finally beyond the control of American policy-makers, were at work. By failing to support Somoza and the shah, Carter had contributed to the rise of hostile regimes.

Carter's policy fostered instability, Kirkpatrick wrote. She dismissed the "pervasive and mistaken assumption that one can easily locate and impose democratic alternatives" in the Third World and the "equally pervasive and equally flawed belief that change per se in . . . autocracies is inevitable, desirable and in the American interest." She argued instead for backing "positively friendly" authoritarian rulers. And she insisted that "right wing autocracies," unlike totalitarian ones, "do sometimes evolve into democracies . . . ."

Ronald Reagan was among the readers of Kirkpatrick's article. He was so impressed that he praised it during the 1980 campaign and named its author ambassador to the United Nations after the election.

In the 1984 campaign, during his second debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan reiterated the Kirkpatrick argument point by point. This time, he employed it specifically to describe the situation in the Philippines, asserting that failure to support "our friend" there would result in the triumph of "totalitarianism, pure and simple, as the alternative."

Thus even after Kirkpatrick left the U.N. to become a syndicated columnist, Kirkpatrickism still had the status of a reigning doctrine.

The Philippines crisis, more than any other event of the 1980s, seemed made to order for the neoconservatives. All the elements present in the Philippines were also present in their theory. There was the "positively friendly" authoritarian dictator, the communist insurgency, the moderate "third force," and clear American interests -- in the form of gigantic military bases. In this living laboratory, the theory was put to the test.

In December 1985, Kirkpatrick wrote a column ranking Marcos' Philippines in the top third of U.N. members in the good-government category. The unpleasantries uncovered by "American newspapers, newsweeklies and network newscasts" reflected an "obsessive intolerance" with "a nation of great strategic importance." The shah and Somoza and other long-gone dictators were recalled. "The failings of each were magnified by people who played on American political purism . . . ."

The pattern seemed obvious to Kirkpatrick: "Once these rulers had fallen" they were replaced by "more tragically repressive, aggressive dictatorships . . . ." Kirkpatrick suggested that the "campaign against the government of the Philippines" might "produce similar consequences."

Early this month, she prepared another column on the Philippines, at the very moment that its presidential election was taking place. "American liberals," she charged, were orchestrating a "campaign . . . to suggest the existence of an anti-Marcos 'consensus' inside the United States government." The result was "meddling" and "interference in Philippine politics." She denounced the "American role" as not "edifying" and cast doubt on charges of Marcos' election fraud -- "it seems very unlikely."

American policy-makers, she urged, must "cease" their "interference" or we would suffer the fate of the explorer Magellan, who was "hacked to death" by "the Philippine tribes." The Carter nightmare appeared to be recurring, only with Reagan in the White House.

But just as the Reagan administration was edging away from the weakening Philippine strongman, Kirkpatrick began edging away from her previously prepared column. Her line became muddy. As the column was being distributed by her syndicate, she rewrote it and sent out a revised version. In this one, she noted that "charges of fraud destroyed (the) perception" of "a creditable election."

A day after Kirkpatrick's original and altered columns simultaneously appeared in various newspapers, Reagan made the debate muddier. In an interview with The Washington Post on Feb. 11, the president praised the emergence of a "two party system" in the Philippines and wondered whether the election fraud was really just "one sided." That evening, Reagan continued his musings at a press conference, at which he suggested "the possibility of fraud . . . on both sides."

Strangely enough, Reagan's comments had little connection with the policy pursued by his administration. On the morning of his press conference, policy-makers at the White House had issued a statement expressing concern about Marcos' election fraud. The battle on the inside had already been won by those trying to extricate the U.S. from the Filipino dictator.

Most of the neoconservatives, however, were not taking their cue from the real administration position but from Reagan's remarks, which he had repudiated himself. Soon, from the neoconservative columns, came a shower of praise for the new "two party system" now in place in the Philippines.

Something was happening that was ". . . more important than whether Ferdinand Marcos or Corazon Aquino 'wins,'" wrote Ben Wattenberg, the neoconservative writer, in The Washington Times.". . . democracy has won a mighty battle." In this view, the election was more meaningful as an existential act than a political one.

The emergence of a "two party system" seemed to bear out the Kirkpatrick thesis that authoritarian regimes could evolve into democracies. But in fact there were not two parties and it wasn't a system. Marcos' organization was a party in the sense that the Gambino crime family is a party. And Aquino's party was a ramshackle affair, sustained by deep popular yearnings, expressed mainly in the streets.

On Feb. 22, the neoconservatives found themselves in the unlikely and uncomfortable position of having the same line as Tass, the Soviet news agency, which attacked the U.S. for its "attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the Philippines." To be sure, the conjunction of the neoconservatives and the Soviets as the last apologists for Marcos was a curious event. Certainly, their motives differed. The Soviets' action was a classic demonstration of cynical realpolitik. The neoconservatives acted out of ideological conviction. Yet both sought to put aside soft sentimentality about democratic niceties in the service of national interest.

The cardinal liberal sin, according to the neoconservatives, is "moral equivalence" -- the equation of American and Russian shortcomings. But in the Philippines crisis, the neoconservatives exhibited a moral equivalence of their own -- the equation of authoritarians and democrats. Because authoritarian regimes have been toppled and replaced by democratic ones -- for example, in Greece, Portugal and Argentina -- the neoconservatives tend to see every permutation within authoritarianism as a hopeful step toward democracy. The conclusion they draw is that these regimes should be defended as if they were the seed of democracy, not the suffocating lid.

In the heat of the Philippines controversy, no one articulated the neoconservative sensibility better than Owen Harries, the co-editor of The National Interest, a neoconservative quarterly intended to tutor the Reagan administration in foreign policy. On Feb. 23, in The New York Times, he blamed the crisis on "the well-intentioned efforts of Americans of various political persuasions . . . ." He claimed the mantle of a higher realism: "Moral considerations . . . cannot be the decisive factors leading to demands for the removal of President Marcos . . . ." And he sketched a scenario in which Aquino's victory fostered "bloody chaos leading to the rapid growth of Communist power . . . ." Marcos, he concluded, must stay.

Blas Ople, Marcos' Minister of Labor, agreed. In the final days, Ople achieved a certain notoriety as Marcos' spokesman on television interview shows. On Feb. 23, he appeared on "This Week With David Brinkley," where he pasted the last fig leaf on his regime: "I would like to paraphrase the distinguished ambassador to the United Nations from the United States, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who warned against a foreign policy of the United States, dedicated to the, literally, to the subjugation of a friendly nation. This is not the business of U.S. foreign policy."

But by the end, even a few neoconservatives seemed to question a theory that seemed to have so little relevance to what happened in the Philippines. Their advice had gone unheeded. They had been overrun by circumstances, unable to adjust, frozen in their past assumptions.

Charles Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist with neoconservative sympathies, concluded this week that "the authoritarian-totalitarian distinction. . . as a guide for deciding which regime the United States will push toward democracy. . . has been superseded . . . ." Thus the old neoconservative doctrine was now declared obsolete.

Perhaps the most apposite text on the neoconservatives' current condition is Kirkpatrick's famous Commentary essay. The "mistakes and distortions" of the Carter years were "all fashionable," she wrote. The liberals had "good intentions," but they were guilty of "idealism." They allowed the "blinding power of ideology" to govern their "interpretation of events."