Of the many New Labour slogans which the government has tried quietly to drop over the past five years, none can have landed with quite such a thump as 'ethical foreign policy'. The party elected in 1997, it may hazily be remembered, promised to put an end to the practice of making shady deals with dictators to further British strategic interests and of turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of faraway countries in order to promote British trade. The government's moral compass, it was asserted, would read as true in an armchair in some distant presidential palace as it does in Whitehall.
It is hard to see quite where an ethical foreign policy fits in with Mr Blair's words in the Commons regarding the ending of the siege at Moscow's Melnikova Street Theatre, which amounted less to a statement on an international emergency than to a personal eulogy to the crisis-management skills of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. 'I hope people will understand the enormity of the dilemma facing President Putin,' said Mr Blair, 'as he weighed what to do, in both trying to end the siege with the minimum loss of life and recognising the dangers of doing anything that conceded to this latest outrage of terrorism from Chechnya.'
It is difficult to believe that Tony Blair privately so admires what happened in Moscow at the weekend. If the IRA were to lay siege to the Royal Opera House in London, would Mr Blair really contemplate pumping a narcotic gas through the air-conditioning system, then refuse to tell doctors treating the survivors the name of the gas used? It is inconceivable that he would.
More remarkable still is the Prime Minister's implied support for the Russian campaign in Chechnya. By referring to 'this latest outrage of terrorism from Chechnya', Mr Blair gives uncritical backing to the Russian position on that Central Asian republic: that it is a badland almost wholly inhabited by bandits whom the Russians have spent the best part of a decade bravely attempting to bring under control. That is not how observers for the group Human Rights Watch see it.
Since the Russian army first moved in to suppress Chechen separatists in 1994, the group claims to have witnessed numerous cases of torture and rape of Chechen civilians at detention centres. Refugees interviewed by the group speak of looting and burning of property by Russian troops, and of being beaten with iron bars. While President Putin's government treats Chechnya as part of Russia for the purposes of oil extraction, interestingly it is rather less keen on doing so when it comes to the payment of pensions to elderly Chechens.
So far, the Prime Minister's only response to Russian heavy-handedness in Chechnya was the rather feeble suggestion, while meeting the newly-elected President Putin in St Petersburg in 2000, that Russia ought to commission an inquiry into human-rights violations in Chechnya. Discussions quickly moved on to trade. Vladimir and Tony, his 'very pleasant and very appropriate partner', then headed off to the opera with Cherie and Lyudmila in tow.
Slobodan Milosevic must wonder where his PR machine went wrong when he decided to take on his own group of troublesome Muslim insurgents. The answer is obvious: Russia, while no longer a superpower, is still an important nuclear power with whom it pays to co-operate, no matter how disgustingly it behaves towards its own people and its neighbours. Serbia, by contrast, is a little country which we can happily bomb without suffering Armageddon in return.
There can be only one reason for Mr Blair's generous tribute to Vladimir Putin in the Commons on Monday. The Prime Minister needs the Russian leader's help in securing a United Nations' resolution against Iraq, and is therefore keen to flatter him. As we have argued before, he is right to seek the UN resolution. To go to war against Saddam Hussein without it would be to hand ammunition to those who accuse America, and the West in general, of conducting an imperialistic policy in the Middle East. And if the price of extracting that resolution is to be nice to Mr Putin, that may be a price which has to be paid.
But the Prime Minister should be careful. It is an outrageous hypocrisy to go to war against Serbia on the basis of that country's human-rights violations in Kosovo, to topple Saddam Hussein partly using the justification of his attacks against the Kurds, and then to heap praise on Vladimir Putin for his suppression of Chechen rebels when it is clear that Russia has gone way beyond the bounds of civilised behaviour.
It would pay Mr Blair if he were to adopt greater honesty as to the aims of British foreign policy. The purpose of our armed forces is not to attempt to put right every injustice in the world, but to pursue British self-interest. There are times when it is necessary to do deals with world leaders of dubious morality, as of course we did with one of President Putin's predecessors, Joseph Stalin. To the words 'ethical foreign policy' need to be added the smallprint: 'These provisions will not apply in the case of Russia or any other country capable of striking back.'