IN THE FIVE MONTHS since I returned from my assignment in the Philippines, I have repeatedly been asked one question about Philippine President Corazon Aquino: "Can she make it?"

Initially, I responded with an affirmative nod and a brief "I believe she can." In the wake of the recent military coup attempt, however, the question "Can she make it?" requires a more complete response. First of all, the question itself requires definition. If "making it" means turning the Philippines into a stable, prosperous, self-confident model of a developing country democracy, the answer is clearly no. The problems are too difficult, the Philippine sense of nationhood too weak, and the time given to Aquino until the end of her term in 1992 too short.

On the other hand, if the question is can her government survive and can she continue to make gradual but important progress in solving the country's problems, then my answer remains, "Yes, I believe she can."

I sometimes sense, however, that the real question being asked is not so much "Can she make it" but rather "Is she really up to it?" Is this obviously sincere and courageous woman strong enough and tough enough to prevail against the forces arrayed against her -- communists, aggressive colonels, and political warlords?

Again, having watched her at first hand during the first year of her presidency, my answer is, "Yes, I believe she is." On the basis of what she has done already and the crises she has survived, I believe she is up to the job. She is no longer the inexperienced housewife as she was described by Ferdinand Marcos, and by herself, during the election campaign nearly two years ago.

Aquino has surprised many people over the past several months, including some of her original supporters against Marcos. Throughout the election campaign and in the first months of her presidency, it was clear that many of the more experienced politicians in her camp assumed that she would reign but not rule and that they would run the country through her.

This proved to be a fundamental misreading of Corazon Aquino. She is intelligent and tough-minded. She was tempered by the election campaign and by her successful leadership of the Filipino people during the dramatic events that followed the election and that culminated in Marcos' flight from Manila to a restless exile in Oahu.

However, the first months in office were difficult for her. Not only did she have no experience in public administration, but she also had the handicap of never having been a working woman, of never having had to assert herself in a day-to-day working environment. Shewas intelligent and industrious, but she now had to learn to impose her personal leadership over a diverse collection of ambitious men and women, many of whom had political agendas that were not compatible with her own.

Moreover, she did not have the advantage of being the head of a political party with an even partially thought-out and coherent program of government. Rather, she was the leader of an amorphous national movement, consisting of competing political parties, single-issue cause-oriented groups, the church and the modern business community. In terms of political ideology these groups ranged from right-of-center to the non-communist left. The only thing that had brought these diverse constituencies together was a common antipathy to Marcos.

Once in power, however, the movement had no agreed agenda of government and there had been no transition period in which to develop one. On Saturday afternoon, they were organizing protest rallies against Marcos, and the following Tuesday, they were in power. There was not only no agreement on what should be done, there was not even a consensus as to what the real problems of the country were.

However, Corazon Aquino has now been the president of the Philippines for a year and a half. She is now an experienced administrator and decision-maker. No longer is her day filled with problems she is confronting for the first time. She has wrestled with the politics of choosing a cabinet and then reshuffling that cabinet. She has prepared a national budget, with all the difficult tradeoffs among political constituencies and national priorities that a budget entails for a government painfully short of money. She has largely neutralized the diehard supporters of Ferdinand Marcos and, having closed off his room for further maneuver, forced the resignation of her first minister of national defense, Juan Ponce Enrile.

Yet, in Western eyes and even in the Philippines, Aquino is sometimes seen as a cautious leader, perhaps too cautious. She is criticized, albeit delicately, for not having taken advantage of her popular support to attack more vigorously the country's critical problems. Filipinos of course have a legitimate right to offer their president criticism and advice. It is their country, and free speech and a free press are, after all, guaranteed by the new constitution. Moreover, such criticism is healthy, even necessary, in a democratic system, and Aquino has shown that she listens carefully to what people are saying.

However, we, the United States, should be wary of giving Aquino advice, no matter how sincere our intentions. What may seem to us to be excessive caution must be viewed within a national culture in which compromise is valued over confrontation and risk is avoided whenever possible.

We should also remember that Aquino believes deeply that she did not become president in order to continue the recent tradition of one-person rule in the Philippines. If the Philippines is to be a functioning democracy, she argues, then the people should accept a large measure of responsibility for their own national destiny, and national policies should be made through the decisions of democratic institutions, not by presidential decree. Yet, although the country wants democracy, many Filipinos, including the educated classes, also want the emotional comfort of strong leadership after so many years of Marcos' making decision for them.

Also, Aquino has recognized from the outset of her administration just how fragile and strained the Filipino sense of nationhood really is. I believe it is this recognition, reinforced by her own personal instinct, that has caused her to stress the need for national reconciliation and the healing of the deep wounds left by Marcos. It was this set of beliefs, not a weakness of personal leadership, that dictated her response to the first several efforts to destabilize her government and that have until very recently governed her approach toward the problems in the Philippine military.

Widespread poverty and hundreds of years of colonial rule in the Philippines also make her job particularly difficult. For many people, particularly in the rural Philippines, the central government -- any central government -- is perceived as an alien presence seeking to collect taxes and to impose a legal system that seems irrelevant and insensitive to local concerns.

This situation was exacerbated in the last years of the Marcos regime. The effective reach of the national government atrophied as a result of corruption and the concentration of national authority in Manila. The quality of public services, such as education, medical treatment, roads and security deteriorated sharply. Too many people came to see the central government and its military not as their protector, but as their antagonist. All this further weakened the already tenuous Filipino sense of nationhood. Not surprisingly, it also led to rapid growth in grassroots support for the communist-led New People's Army.

Aquino has accomplished much, but critical problems remain in the Philippines. The country is desperately poor. Even if the current rate of economic growth of some 5 to 6 percent per year is sustained for the next several years, per capita incomes will not climb back to the level of the late 1970s until the early 1990s. In effect, the Philippines has lost 10 years. The problem of the $28 billion foreign debt is being managed, but it remains a heavy burden on a still weak economy. The eventual solution to the debt problem lies in sustained economic growth, combined with periodic restructuring of principal and interest. In the meantime, the Philippines will remain vulnerable to higher interest rates, protectionism in its foreign markets and rising oil prices.

At the same time, the New People's Army remains a serious threat to the consolidation of democracy in the Philippines. Contrary to the expectations of some in the Aquino government, though not the president herself, the insurgency did not melt away with the departure of Marcos, although its rate of growth appears to have declined from the peaks of 1984 and 1985. Having tried a ceasefire and negotiations, Aquino is left with the need to establish a comprehensive, long-term counterinsurgency effort. The government is trying to put such a program together. The Philippines does not lack for people who understand what a counterinsurgency program should look like and how it should work. What it lacks is the money to pay for such a program on the scale and with the urgency that is required.

Also, as we have seen in recent weeks, there are serious problems of morale and dissension within the Philippine military that threaten political stability in the Philippines, if not the survival of the Aquino government. It is of course important to keep the recent coup attempt in perspective. The great bulk of the military remained loyal to the government and responded to orders from the president and the chief of staff, General Fidel Ramos, to use force to put down the rebels. Yet, the problems within the military are without question serious and urgent.

However, like so many of the problems of the Philippines, those involving the military are complicated and cannot be corrected quickly. Marcos systematically corrupted most of the national institutions of the Philippines, including the judiciary and the civil service.

But nowhere is the institutional damage of the Marcos period more starkly apparent than in the military. Before the establishment of the martial law regime in 1972, the armed forces of the Philippines was a relatively small, well disciplined, and professional institution with a longstanding respect for the principle of civilian supremacy. By using the military as the operating authority of government under martial law, Marcos began to create a new and dangerous set of attitudes within the armed forces. Some in the military, particularly many of the senior officers, came to consider themselves above the law and accountable only to Marcos. Professionalism and the integrity of the military chain of command deteriorated sharply.

In the end of course, this military was unable to keep Marcos in power. Indeed, some discontented factions of the officer corps, young officers motivated at least in part by a desire for military reform and operating under the patronage of Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos' minister of national defense, had begun to plot a coup against the Marcos regime. The coup attempt aborted, but did play a key role in touching off the bloodless revolution that forced Marcos from office.

Aquino, however, was left with a dispirited and factionalized military that had been systematically corrupted by Marcos. Then, elements of that military were politicized by Juan Ponce Enrile. In the months after the revolution, Enrile used his position as Aquino's minister of defense and his strong ties to the same group of young officers to try to destabilize the Aquino government. He persuaded these officers that he and they, not the Filipino people, had overthrown Marcos, and that they, therefore, had a right to political power. What we saw in the Philippines at the end of last month was the latest and hopefully the final effort by these officers to complete the military coup they had failed to carry out against Marcos in February of 1986.

So, what can the United States do now? First, of course we should continue doing what we have been doing for the past 18 months. We should make unequivocally clear our full support for the Aquino government. No group that contemplates the overthrow of the Aquino government should have any reason to hope to receive any economic and military assistance from the United States. This is after all a statement of political reality. We have a powerful national interest in the success of the Aquino government.

The American reaction to the overthrow of Aquino, given the deep and emotional support for her among the American public, would have little to do with superpower politics and even less with the importance of United States access to the military bases at Clark and Subic. Aquino's opposition must understand that no administration in the United States would be able to make a case in this country for support to any government in the Philippines formed as a consequence of the overthrow of Aquino. Indeed, I suspect that no administration would be tempted even to try.

But factionalism and discontent within the armed forces of the Philippines will not stop just because the United States wishes them to stop. They will stop only when professionalism is restored within the institution, when tension and suspicion between the government and the armed forces have been reduced, and when the military feels fully confident about itself and its proper role in the Philippines. This is a task for Filipinos. Officers and civilians alike must continue to work to build a sense of mutual confidence and trust.

The United States can and should help, however. Fortunately, the situation is far from hopeless. Even under Marcos, many Filipino officers remained committed to the principles of professionalism, even if they were frustrated in their attempts to operate on such principles. Also, notwithstanding the recent coup attempt, the Philippine military is already a better military, more professional and better led, than it was 18 months ago.

Much more remains to be done, however, and given the financial crisis that continues to grip the Aquino government, the only realistic source for the sort of money required for a major effort to rebuild the military is the United States. The military assistance we are now providing, some $100 million per year, is barely enough to prevent a further deterioration in the capabilities of the Philippine armed forces. If we want to act on our concern for the future of democracy in the Philippines -- and our concern over the threat from the communist insurgency -- we should move immediately to provide substantially more military aid.

In the final analysis, however, the future of democracy in the Philippines will depend on the Filipino people. They will have to continue to manifest their own unequivocal commitment to democratic, civilian rule. Their popular will is the most powerful antidote to any spreading of political adventurism within the military. At present, it is inconceivable that any group that tried to seize power by overthrowing Aquino, could form a government capable of ruling the country. It is essential that the people of the Philippines continue to send that message to her opponents -- loudly and clearly.

Stephen Bosworth, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines from 1984 to 1987, is a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College where he is writing a book.