The squabbling and finger-pointing surrounding the 9/11 commission only serve to obscure the fundamental lesson of that horrific day. Whatever errors or incompetence on the part of a particular individual or intelligence agency, what made September 11 possible was a failure of policy. Our government, whether controlled by Democrat or Republican, had for decades conducted an accommodating, range-of-the-moment, unprincipled foreign policy.

September 11 was not the first time America was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists engaged in “holy war” against us. In 1979 theocratic Iran — which has spearheaded the “Islamic Revolution” — stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 54 Americans hostage for over a year. In 1983 the Syrian- and Iranian-backed group Hezbollah bombed a U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 servicemen while they slept; the explosives came from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. In 1998 al-Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 individuals. In 2000 al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

So we already knew that al-Qaeda was actively engaged in attacking Americans. We even had evidence that agents connected to al-Qaeda had been responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And we knew in 1996 that bin Laden had made an overt declaration of war against the “Satan” America.

But how did America react? Did our government adopt a principled approach and identify the fact that we were faced with a deadly threat from an ideological foe? Did we launch systematic counterattacks to wipe out such enemy organizations as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Fatah? Did we seek to eliminate enemy states like Iran? No — our responses were shortsighted and self-contradictory.

To cite only a few of depressingly many examples: we initially expelled Iranian diplomats — but later sought an appeasing rapprochement with that ayatollah-led government. We intermittently cut off trade with Iran — but secretly negotiated weapons-for-hostages deals. When Israel had the courage to enter Lebanon in 1982 to destroy the PLO, we refused to uncompromisingly support our ally and instead brokered the killers’ release. And with respect to al-Qaeda, we dropped a perfunctory bomb or two on one of its suspected camps, while our compliant diplomats waited for al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks to fade from the headlines.

At home we treated our attackers as if they were isolated criminals rather than soldiers engaged in battle against us. In 1941 we did not attempt to indict the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor — we declared war on the source. Yet we spent millions trying to indict specific terrorists — while we ignored their masters.

Despite emphatic pronouncements from Islamic leaders about a “jihad” against America, our political leaders failed to grasp the ideology that seeks our destruction. This left them unable to target that enemy’s armed combatants — in Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia — and the governments that assist them.

Is it any wonder then that, although our intelligence agencies prevented many planned attacks, they could not prevent them all?

Tragically, little has changed since September 11. Our government’s actions remain hopelessly unprincipled. Despite the Bush administration’s rhetoric about ending states that sponsor terrorism, President Bush has left the most dangerous of these — Iran — untouched, while his officials periodically seek “rapprochement” and work with Iranian officials to foster “religious values” at U.N. conferences. The attack on Iraq, though capable of justification, was hardly a priority in our war against militant Islam. And because the war was waged with no view to the long term, Iraq is in danger of slipping into the hands of Shiite clerics and other militant Islamic leaders — and thus of becoming even more of a threat than it was.

Moreover, when Bush does strike at a militant Islamic regime, he does so only haltingly. He stresses that the conflict is not ideological and, morally unsure of his right to protect American lives by force, cowers before any sign of world disapproval over civilian casualties. The result was that he reined in the military forces in Afghanistan and allowed numerous Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters to escape.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Bush continues to play by a double standard. His administration scolds Israel for killing its own bin Laden, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, while Bush pretends that the Palestinians and Islamic militants attacking Israel — and who have attacked Americans in the past and will no doubt try again in the future — are, somehow, different from al-Qaeda and deserving of a “peace” plan.

And now, both Republicans and Democrats wage a domestic war, senselessly and desperately trying to find a fall guy for September 11. Thus, too unprincipled to identify the enemy and wage all-out war, but not yet completely blind to their own ineffectualness, leaders from both parties resignedly admit that we’re in for a “long war” and that there will be more terrorists attacks on U.S. soil.

The lesson to learn from September 11 is this. We must root out the amoral, pragmatic expediency that dominates our government’s foreign policy and replace it with the principles of self-interest.