Col. Gaddafi of Libya, seen here with British Prime Minister Tony Blair is described as vain by British diplomats
Vanity of Libyan leader Gaddafi revealed in latest documents from Wikileaks Reuters

The chaos and violence currently ravaging Libya has raised questions about the conduct of Britain and especially its former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, towards a regime that now stands accused of killing 400 of its own citizens.

Mr Blair famously became Prime Minister in 1997 promising an "ethical foreign policy", as opposed to what was presumably the unethical one of John Major. His record in fulfilling this is perhaps best described as patchy.

As with much of what Mr Blair said, the words sounded good but were of little use in knowing what he meant, especially when one considers that what is considered ethical varies from person to person.

The early efforts of the Blair government to implement his "ethical" foreign policy passed with very little controversy despite making ethical judgements that were far from clear cut.

One of the earliest of these efforts was the Good Friday Agreement. This deal is widely regarded as being one of the few genuine achievements of Mr Blair and one cannot deny that Irish terrorism has, if not disappeared, become something of a rarity.

The fact that the deal does appear to have been successful in this regard might be taken as proof that it was a success for ethics. However not everything about the deal could be considered ethical. It did for example involve the release of hundreds of unrepentant criminals, such as the Brighton Bomber, Patrick Magee.

In addition while the British government initiated a lengthy and expensive inquiry into Bloody Sunday, which shed light on the less than ethical actions of British servicemen and their superiors, Sinn Fein and the IRA have never been compelled to reveal many of their dark secrets. There will be no inquiry into who ordered Mr Magee to plant the bomb which killed five people, permanently disabled others and nearly assassinated an elected Prime Minister, nor is it likely that the full truth of Gerry Adams' involvement in the IRA will ever be known.

Perhaps the reason there has been relative peace in Northern Ireland since the Agreement was signed is that the IRA, which according to former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit, was on the run by the early to mid 1990's, was offered startlingly good terms by a government that could have all but destroyed them if it had the will to do so. It was, say the small number of critics, an act of appeasement and surrender by the British government. Was it so ethical after all? That depends on whether you value justice or peace more highly.

Mr Blair's other attempts at implementing an "ethical" foreign policy were significant only in that they laid the ground work for his most controversial act as Prime Minister, the invasion of Iraq.

The principle that it is moral and ethical to invade another country in order to free it from tyranny was not dreamt up in 2003 by Mr Blair while his henchman Alastair Campbell was busy sexing up intelligence dossiers. Mr Blair had already articulated and acted upon that principle in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor.

So long as the countries involved were small, the interventions limited and the local population broadly friendly, this principle did not find itself being seriously challenged by many. However the same principle applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq proved too much for many to handle.

Mr Blair argues to this day that the invasion was a moral thing to do as it removed a bloodstained tyrant from power and led to the introduction of democracy in Iraq. This he claims is ethical and few can dispute that removing Saddam Hussein is desirable. Yet equally it was argued that it is unethical in the extreme to remove Saddam Hussein if it meant (as it did) killing many thousands of people.

The invasion of Iraq was of course a watershed moment in the region and is to some extent behind the current turmoil in the Middle East and of course Libya. The demands for an end to autocracy sweeping the Middle East at the moment have been attributed by some to the sight of Iraqi's going to the polls for the first time in 2005. However in the shorter term, very quickly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi said he was putting an end to his own ambitions to create weapons of mass destruction.

This in its turn allowed Mr Blair to begin the process of bringing the "mad dog" in from the cold where he had been residing with Saddam Hussein and other unsavoury characters. By opening up Libya Mr Blair and later his successor Gordon Brown helped pave the way for billions of pounds worth of business deals, but as with Northern Ireland this rapprochement came at the expense of justice.

The murderer of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, who was killed in 1984 by shots fired from the Libyan embassy, has never even identified, while the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released last year after serving only eight years for the murder 270 people.

Even the release of al-Megrahi has been defended as ethical on the grounds that it would show the compassionate values that Britain has, even towards its worst enemies. The previous government, although not directly responsible for releasing al-Megrahi, could have taken and promoted that view, but instead they chose to work for the release of al-Megrahi covertly in the hope that no one would notice. If they really thought the release was "ethical" then they would and should have said openly that it was their wish was to release al-Megrahi as a demonstration of compassion, rather than sullenly try to pin all the blame on the Scottish government.

The sacrificing of justice for peace and business prospects may be defended by some as ethical, others will take the opposite view. Similarly those who advocate foreign wars of intervention must do so with the deaths of those who die in them on their consciences, while those who shy away must live with human rights abuses by tyrants on theirs.

The third option is to support tyrants. This of course has been the policy of Britain and the West for a considerable amount of time and has been defended on the grounds that it promotes stability. While this may be true few in the West are prepared to stick to this policy when bad regimes are opposed by the people they repress, as in Egypt. That would be unethical.

We see this most brutally in Libya, where the warming of relations begun by Mr Blair and his ethical foreign policy allowed the sale of arms by Britain to Libya. It is all too likely that those arms have been used to kill some of the 400 plus protestors slain by Libyan security forces.

An ethical foreign policy, perhaps like a world without poverty, is a utopian idea. Whether governments chose to oppose or ignore evil regimes there will be unexpected consequences and a cost to pay, often in the blood of innocents. However one thing we should not be doing if we want to describe ourselves as ethical is supporting those rulers who at best we will be embarrassed by and at worst will use our support to butcher and oppress their own people.