If President Reagan has dispatched Philip Habib to the Philippines to figure out how to make the best of a bad mess, that's one thing. Habib is a gifted and tireless veteran of thankless missions (the Middle East, Vietnam). But if his job is as the president described it, he will only be compounding the error of the administration's ways.

Habib, the president said, is "to help advise me on how the United States can best pursue (its) task for the future," in the Philippines: "to help nurture the hopes and possibilities of democracy; to help the people of the Philippines overcome the grave problems their country faces; and to continue to work for essential reforms." Those are worthy goals. But they still would not justify the depth of current U.S. involvement in the Philippines' internal affairs were it not for two vital American considerations.

One is Clark Air Force Base. The other is the Subic Bay Naval Base. And in no way does it follow that the U.S. security interest in these military installations is advanced by clumsy efforts to invest the election outcome with the flowering of "democracy." On the contrary, the fraud perpetrated upon the hapless Filipino electorate is in the nature of Asian flu. It is contagious, especially on contact, as we have seen in the case of the U.S. observer team. Some of the members brought it back with them from the Philippines.

Already, it is infecting what passes for U.S. policy. Yes, the president said, there was "the possibility" of fraud (on both sides), but it is really no worse than a bad Cook County cold: after all, there are electoral abuses in America. Look, he said, at how enthusiastically people voted -- and never mind that they might not have been counted. Thepresident takes comfort that there are now clearly two parties, pretty evenly balanced, and that the opposition candidate, Corazon Aquino, got a whole lot of votes. Never mind that she and her supporters may be cheated out of actually winning.

Sen. Richar Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leader of the observer team, states flatly that Comelec (the government's election commission) was "effective" in stopping Namfrel (a Filipino citizens' poll-watching group) from making its own independent count in Manila, an Aquino stronghold. He said that both Namfrel and opposition party observers were "kicked out" of five provinces holding one-fourth of the total vote. "The number of persons disenfranchised was fairly large."

In the same breath, he said "the election is not over" and he had told the president that President Marcos "still has the power to allow a fair count." How do you conduct a fair count of "persons who have been disenfranchised"? Other official U.S. observers said they had only "circumstantial evidence" of fraud. That figures; they numbered only 19, and the Philippines is a nation of 7,200 islands.

But questions would remain in any case: it is hard enough to measure the effects of threats or bribes in the faces of voters lined up at polling places -- or prudently staying away. It is harder still to measure victims of hanky-panky with registration rolls; crooked vote-counts; destroyed ballots and "lost" ballot boxes; pressure on the government's own vote-counters. (Some 30 said they had walked out in protest.)

More important, in a strict sense, the election is over. That makes it idle to suggest, as Lugar does, that a way be found to reconcile gross discrepancies between government tallies and those of the citizens' group. Given the nature of the abuses in the process of voting (as distinct from the counting) what you would be recounting by even the most impeccable process would be, collectively, a junk vote.

To pretend otherwise -- to talk about furthering democracy when what you have to work with is Ferdinand Marcos -- is not just to deny his record of rule under martial law for most of the time since he came to power in 1965. To put a pretty face on the outcome is a sure way for the administration to inflame an already inflamed opposition, heightening the risk of violence and harsh repression by the Marcos regime. It is a sure way, as well, to invite a fight with congressional critics when the administration is going to need all the congressional support it can get.

This means putting aside pretenses and reappraising the best way to hold on to Subic and Clark -- if indeed our dependence on them is as absolute as the Defense Department insists. The issues to debate are: how to live with Marcos for as long as it may be necessary; how to bring about a stable transition; how to create the best conditions for dealing with a dangerous communist insurgency; how to arrest economic collapse; how, if need be, to lighten out dependence on the Philippines as a "strategic asset."

These tactical objectives are hindered by pretending that our principal concern is promoting a Filipino democracy, functioning in our image.