TWELVE MILES south of Christendom, across the Straits of Gibraltar, Morocco is the Moslem country situated closest to the Western world. As such, it has been the object of the Occident's wildest imaginings for centuries. North Africa's felicitous mixture of exotica and accessibility has lured countless nizranis ("infidels," from "Nazarenes") ranging from Delacroix, Edith Wharton, William Burroughs and Elias Canetti, to the French Foreign Legion, late-'60s potheads, and jet-charter Swedish sunbathers. Whether their interests have been literary, artistic, altruistic, pecuniary or hedonistic, Morocco has offered first inspiration, then opportunity, and finally, if the visitor has stayed long enough, disillusion.

Most significantly, fantasy and delusion have characterized the history of the West's political dealings with Morocco. Beginning with European powers chasing the caravan gold trade, through France's quixotic 30-year war of colonization, right up to the current war in the Western Sahara and U.S. Ambassador Joseph Reed's recent remark that "the next pressure point for the Soviets is going to be the Kingdom of Morocco," a succession of Western powers has fought or been prepared to fight costly battles for political goals which turn out, once they're won, to be mirages.

The Conquest of Morocco by Douglas Porch is a lively chronicle of the pivotal period of that history. It covers the 11 years before World War I during which France took effective control of the Moroccan Sultanate and began a colonial occupation that lasted until 1956. Moroccan fervor and corruption confront French rationalism, ignorance and might throughout. The context is Europe's colonial rivalries, French domestic politics, and the foibles of the sultans and France's conquering soldier Hubert Lyautey. No Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Firbank or Joseph Heller could invent as black-comic a series of events as Porch recounts; the text is full of such savage vainglory and blunder that one would find it hilarious were it not so appalling.

Porch, an American scholar, has come to this subject after two previous books on French military history and another on the Portugese army in the Portugese revolution. A senior lecturer in modern European history at the University College of Wales, he has a command of intricate French politics, military tactics, and an interesting perspective on colonialism. But The Conquest of Morocco is a work of popular history, and therefore benefits most from Porch's fine eye for the telling detail and his traveler's sense of cultural disorientation. Chapters overflow with surreal anecdote and description: "Sultan Abd el-Aziz filched a bottle of chloroform belonging to his English court physician and proceeded to put his entire harem to sleep. He then chloroformed one of the palace lions"; Kaiser Wilhelm II and his retinue ashore at Tangiers look as if "the cast of a Wagnerian opera had wandered by mistake onto a stage set for Aida." However, 300 pages of the bizarre can be a little rich; at places the narrative becomes choppy. At other places the amount of historical incident becomes dismaying, as a host of cameo chieftains rides on-scene and off. Historical narrative is one of the hardest kinds of writing there is, and harder still to make consistently gripping. In Porch's story one senses the conflict of the scholar and the popular writer, each trying, in his own way, to do justice to a large and colorful subject.

That story begins in 1900, with the conquest of Morocco underway. The sultan, a well-meaning, dissolute figure under the influence of Europeans, had bankrupted the kingdom by signing away all its customs revenues to pay for arms no one could fire, and motorized tricycles, Marie Antoinette costumes for his harem, "cars, a miniaturized train which never ran for lack of rails . . . an elevator for a one-story palace. . . 'an infinity of all that was grotesque, useless and in bad taste.' " Failed harvests, and a hapless military expedition into the desert designed to impress the Europeans had further weakened the realm. Rebel pretenders emerged from the mountains to challenge the sultan's dwindling political and religious authority. "Morocco in 1900," Porch writes, "was a country because the Sultan said it was . . . over much of which the Sultan exercised only nominal control." The British and the French believed that "the whole 'rickety edifice' needed only the slightest push from outside to come tumbling down."

The French soldier who arrived to give that push was Hubert Lyautey. Aristocratic, literary (a friend of Proust), conservative, and homosexual, Lyautey had fled the restrictive mores and liberal politics of Dreyfusard France for a free hand in the Arm,ee d'Afrique. Beyond the control of his military superiors and the interference of politicians, Lyautey did as he liked. He adopted an idiosyncratic personal style: "his uniform was hidden beneath a huge burnous of royal purple, bordered in gold, and decorated with the silver stars of rank . . . his saddle holsters were covered in tiger skins . . . his tent: 'as big as an apartment, lined with cloth and silk.' " And his military methods were equally unorthodox: against orders, Lyautey would invade territories that had been declared off-limits; then, to cover up his actions in dispatches, he would invent new names for all the conquered towns. His methods, however, earn him little as a strategist from Porch: "The conquest of Morocco lurched from crisis to crisis, for the French action consistentl provoked what was for them an unexpected response. Time and again they followed the wrong policy or backed the wrong man. Time and again they were forced to fall back upon superior firepower to extricate themselves from a political mess of their own making." Back home this was perceived as success and Lyautey rose to become a war minister of France. Porch cites him for a significant role in promoting the disastrous "counterinsurgency" techniques that proved so useless to the French in Indochina and Algeria, the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, and the Americans in Vietnam. Under his leadership, the French "slight push" lasted from 1903 to 1925, and then without him until 1934, at considerable human and financial cost. To what end?

"Why had colonialists fixed their sights on Morocco?" Porch rhetorically asks. "The answer to this question belongs more properly to the realm of psychology than that of economics. For Europeans, Morocco's economic importance was trifling--a few teapots and bolts of cloth . . . some spoke of Morocco's vast potential wealth in minerals, but these were dreamers, men who had not done their sums . . . The cost of conquering Morocco and of developing a transportation network beyond the few primitive tracks that existed in the interior would far exceed the profits from the few minerals that could be scratched from the soil . . . few emigrants could be scraped together to people the vast acres of conquered land."

Porch's answer is that the conquest of Morocco was motivated by a misguided notion of strategic importance and a desire to recover lost prestige. This answer goes beyond the period described in Porch's book and the subsequent French Protectorate. It extends into the present as well. For as one reads the newspapers, or visits Morocco, or speaks with government officials in that country, certain unavoidable parallels appear between Morocco as Porch describes it then, and Morocco now.

The current Sultan Hassan II, a lineal descendant of Abd el-Aziz, has since 1975 prosecuted a war in the Western Sahara. Like the sultans of the French colonial period he is finding the cost of munitions crushing, and desert warfare interminable and inconclusive. And, in an interesting turn of events, Morocco has taken on the role of colonizer, something it is ill-prepared to do.

Once again a Western power--in this era, the United States--is attributing to this corner of the world a strategic significance that holds up even less now than it did before World War I. In the intervening years since the French began their conquest, the strategic enemy has shifted from Germany and England to the Soviet Union. But calling tribesmen Soviet agents instead of German or English agents doesn't make it any more accurate. The increasing American military and financial support for Hassan's campaign has a signal resemblance to France's for Lyautey.

Porch repeatedly shows how Western perceptions of Morocco have erred from the beginning; in fact, that is his central theme. And misperceptions have great longevity and resilience, as current events indicate. Viewed in their light The Conquest of Morocco is not only quite a good and valuable book, it is also a cautionary tale.