USE OF FORCE….Ezra Klein listens to Hillary Clinton explaining that she wouldn’t have voted for the Iraq war if she’d known how bad the intelligence was (not to mention how big a doofus George Bush was) — and comes away unsatisfied. Being more skeptical about intelligence, he says, is not the right lesson to learn from Iraq:

The lesson I’ve taken, by contrast, is that toppling Middle Eastern governments, occupying their societies, and trying to impose pluralistic democracy is an almost impossible endeavor, one with far more potential for catastrophe than completion. And it’s easy to assume, listening to politicians who have turned against the war, that they’ve gleaned the same. That isn’t necessarily true. Just because they oppose the Iraq War in retrospect, doesn’t mean they oppose the theory on which it was based. They may have turned against the lies, or the mismanagement, or the unpopularity. But they may not have substantially raised the bar for the use of force.

Regular readers know that I largely agree with the spirit of this. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards may claim to have learned a lesson from the Iraq debacle, but when the conversation turns to Iran they sure don’t sound like they’ve learned much of anything.

But I think Ezra’s formulation falls short too. Arguing that it’s not possible to impose democracy on Middle Eastern countries is sort of like fighting the last war. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s true or not. It’s damaged goods, and no one in the foreseeable future is going to use this as an excuse for military action. Why bother constructing arguments against a case no one is going to make?

Right now, the most likely target for the use of military force in the Middle East is Iran, and when the time comes George Bush won’t pretend that he’s trying to midwife the birth of democracy there. He’s simply going to point to some border incident or another, along with intelligence suggesting that Iran is close to building a nuclear bomb, and that will be that. The cruise missiles will be on their way.

Bottom line: forget about democracy-building arguments for now. The ground has shifted. In the upcoming marketing campaign for war against Iran, much of the debate actually will be focused on intelligence (just how close is Iran to building a nuke?), so it’s nice to know that Clinton and Edwards claim they’re going to approach the intelligence with a more skeptical eye this time around. More important, though, are their views on (a) whether they approve of using military force to prevent Iran from someday going nuclear if they feel there’s no other way to stop it, and (b) whether they believe the president can unilaterally take such action. Or, conversely, would they support a resolution barring the president from taking substantial military action against Iran without prior congressional approval? Do they even think Congress has that authority? That’s a question I’d like them to answer, especially since someday one of them just might be the president considering military action.

UPDATE: More here that I pretty much agree with. Aside from Iran-specific issues, it’s the broader questions that are most important, not the narrow ones.

UPDATE 2: Just in case this post wasn’t clear — always a distinct possibility — here’s a short conversation to ponder:

A: Trying to impose pluralistic democracy at the point of a gun is an almost impossible endeavor.

B: Oh yes. The Iraq war has firmly convinced me of that.

A: Aha! Then you agree that war with Iran would be wrong.

B: Oh no. I don’t want to impose democracy on Iran. I just want to bomb their nuclear facilities and then leave.

A: Um…..

There just aren’t many people left who think (or pretend to think) that the United States Army can make democracy bloom in the Middle East. We’ve won that argument for now. But we’d better be ready for all the other arguments.