WE are probably in for a messy time of it in the Philippines, and President Reagan could not have done better than recruit Phil Habib to help sort it all out. Mr. Habib is an immensely able and experienced diplomat, ruthlessly disciplined about staying out of the public eye and away from the press, but forcefully direct in his diplomatic negotiations and blunt in his analysis and conclusions.
He has served in Asia in a variety of capacities and knows it well. He has been undersecretary of state for political affairs, the job that means being operationally in charge of the State Department. More recently, he has been better known for his role as special negotiator in the Middle East, and particularly in Lebanon.
It was Habib who negotiated the evacuation from Beirut of the Palestine Liberation Organization after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and Habib who played a frustrating role in trying later to get the Israelis and Syrians out of Lebanon.
As an American of Lebanese origin himself, Mr. Habib found the destruction of Lebanon a painful business, but the energy which he brought to peacemaking -- and which he brings to every new problem of diplomacy -- rarely flagged.
He has a couple of passions. One is Lebanese food. Once, when I asked him in Lebanon whether he was wearing a summer suit or a winter suit, he replied: ``I have only two kinds of suits -- fat suits and thin suits. In Lebanon, I wear my fat suit.''
Another of his enthusiasms is golf, which he likes to play at home in California.
But his rapport with Secretary of State George Shultz, and the trust that President Reagan has in him, have kept taking him away from golf and alleged retirement to new and knotty missions on behalf of his country.
With the Philippines, they have given him another hot one.
Ego (the Philippines is a colonial child of the United States), strategic interests (big bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay), and a burgeoning communist insurgency in the Philippines have deeply involved Washington in Manila's politics.
The Reagan White House was a little slow off the mark in realizing what was going wrong in the Philippines. But in recent months it has made up for it, offering about as much private and public criticism of a noncommunist government and ally as one can remember. The regime of President Marcos has been enjoined to get rid of corruption, galvanize the military, stimulate the economy, and bring back democracy. To most of this, Mr. Marcos has responded with one circumlocutory evasion after another.
In response to American nudging, However, Mr. Marcos did call the election we have just witnessed, which has gained for the Philippines worldwide and not-too-constructive publicity.
Now the Reagan administration is trying to figure out how to posture itself after the election it wanted, the outcome of which is a question mark.
In the initial hours of embarrassment over charges of fraud and manipulation, there was some White House inclination to proclaim aloofness from events in Manila.
That, of course, will not wash. The United States has been up to its elbows in the politics of the Philippines. It has not, so far as we know, tried to influence the election outcome in favor of either President Marcos or his challenger, Mrs. Aquino. But it has certainly put its prestige and influence on the side of reform and the democratic process, and it cannot now walk away from implementing these, contending that all this is merely an internal Filipino affair. If it can toss out Marxist regimes in Grenada and nudge tyrannical regimes in Haiti, the United States can hardly be disengaged from the pursuit of freedom in the Philippines, the child of its own democratic ideals.
Ambassador Habib is a savvy old diplomatic professional, wise to the politics of the Philippines and the United States. He will need all of this expertise and wisdom as he takes on his latest assignment.