Where do you even start? Perhaps with the comedy of George Bush demanding "to know the facts" about Iraq's non-existent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction - casting himself as an aggrieved American voter, somehow hoodwinked into the war with Iraq. No doubt we should brace ourselves for Bush pounding his fist on the table, demanding to know "who ordered this goddamned war anyway?" And to think, he could have known all the facts without firing a single shot - if only he had let Hans Blix and his team of UN inspectors finish their work.
Or perhaps we should begin with the hilarious sight of Colin Powell, who exactly a year ago treated the UN security council to a show-and-tell exposť of Saddam's terrifying arsenal, now admitting that, had he known Baghdad had no WMD, he would have had his doubts about going to war. With rather elegant understatement, he concedes it would have changed "the political calculus".
Maybe the right starting point is closer to home, with the alternative comedy of Tony Blair insisting as late as last week there could be no inquiry, no inquiry, no inquiry - until Bush ordered one in Washington and suddenly London saw the entire question in a new light. Now there is to be an inquiry. What was an unnecessary, ludicrous proposal last week when the Tories and Lib Dems demanded it is suddenly a rather good idea now that Mr Bush has smiled upon it.
The government says the trigger was the Senate testimony of Bush's handpicked weapons inspector, David Kay - he who quit as head of the Iraq Survey Group because, he concluded, Iraq's WMD were a mirage. That, says the government, made an inquiry "inevitable". In which case, why was it not signaled as soon as Dr Kay testified last Wednesday? Or even a week earlier when he quit? The truth is that Tony Blair is going into this inquiry the way he went into the war itself: as Tonto to the American Lone Ranger, Mini-Me to George Bush's Dr Evil.
Too cynical? Maybe so. But after last week's experience, deep skepticism is the required mode. For the Hutton episode was something of a loss of innocence for those who had preferred to assume the best of Britain's top institutions. Government allies have assailed the Hutton report's critics with this repeated refrain: "If you think Hutton is such a bad judge, why didn't you say so earlier? You were perfectly happy to accept him when you thought he was going to give Blair a kicking." There is power to this argument, but there is a response. It is that many who suspected the Iraq war was fought on a false basis believed the inquiry system would be fair; that a senior judge would take account of all the evidence he heard, not ignore large chunks of it. These doubters hesitated to rake over the law lord's previous judgments, check out the cases he fought as an advocate, or root out telling details in his biography. Such suspicion would suggest a lack of faith in the ability of a judge to assess each case, and each piece of evidence, on its own merits. For our system to work, all of us have at least to accept the ground rules, don't we?
It turns out we were too trusting. We somehow ignored the injustice of a system that allows the man under suspicion - in this case, the prime minister - to pick the judge who will judge him. We did not probe deeply into why Brian Hutton might have taken Charles Falconer's fancy. We did not parse the precise wording of Hutton's remit because we assumed he would be fair.
Well, we won't get fooled again. Critics of the war should not wait till this latest inquiry into Iraqi WMD is over before they voice their misgivings - only to be accused of questioning the ref's credentials after the match. We should express our concerns right now.
Begin with the remit. After Hutton, we should all be on our guard for narrowly drawn terms of reference that handily exclude any discomfort for the government. Having learned our lesson, what do we spot in yesterday's Commons announcement by Jack Straw? For one thing, there is an ambiguity, arising from a poor bit of wording. The panel is "to examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq Survey Group since the end of the conflict". It sounds nerdy, but the meaning of that clumsy sentence all turns on the second "and". One reading is that it allows the inquiry to probe the difference between the raw intelligence and the way it was "used" by the government to make the case for war. Alternatively it could mean the inquiry is only to investigate the difference between the raw data and the actual picture on the ground.
The latter interpretation would favor the government, by putting the spies in the dock alone, forcing them to explain why their estimate proved so wrong - and skipping over the politicians' role entirely. You don't have to be a cynic to expect that this is precisely how the new committee will define its terms. After all, Straw said there was no need to examine the way government processed and presented the intelligence it received - no need because those issues had been so "comprehensively covered by Lord Hutton".
Both Blair and Straw further stressed that the committee would have to stay out of such terrain, not straying into "the political judgment that led us to war". Straw tried to wrap this up in quasi-constitutional mumbo-jumbo, suggesting that for a committee to investigate such a question would represent a usurpation of parliament. That is nonsense. The committee could simply find out whether the case which was put to MPs - and which persuaded many waverers to vote for war a year ago - was sound or bogus. That would be a service to parliament, not a threat.
The Lib Dems saw through this trick, and are to be applauded for refusing to sanction it with their presence on the committee. But the rest of the personnel are worth looking at. We should not wait till his report to note that Lord Butler was until fairly recently a faithful servant of Blair's; that he defended Whitehall chicanery during the arms-to-Iraq affair; and that he took the word of Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken on trust. Nor is it outrageous to observe that Ann Taylor has hardly been distinguished by her independence from the Labour leadership or that Michael Mates has had his own embarrassments. Above all, this group is allowed to do all its work in secret - which will be mightily convenient to those who have set it up.
Of course, I could be misjudging the process entirely. It might deliver a report that at last gets to the truth of how we came to fight a war over weapons that did not exist. If it does, that will prove a pleasant surprise. Until then, we should remain watchful and wary.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004