The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reshaped the U.S. foreign policy agenda, says Doug Feith, who was undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration.
He sees the top two goals of that new agenda as achieved: preventing future attacks and disrupting terror networks. But he says the U.S. failed on the other goal: countering ideological support for terrorism.
Feith, a senior fellow as the Hudson Institute, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that before the attacks, terrorism had been thought of as a phenomenon of limited violence, where one group attempts to draw international sympathy and attention toward its cause.
"That clearly was not an adequate way to explain 9/11," he says. "They were looking to cause mass destruction."
Inside the administration, there was agreement that the people who planned the attacks needed to be punished. But Feith explains that this wasn't the sole objective of the American response.
"The strategy that ultimately got developed in the Bush administration for dealing with the terrorism problem had three main elements," he says. "One was protecting the homeland. The second was disrupting and attacking international terrorist networks. ... The third was, or should have been, countering ideological support for terrorism.
"I think that we fell down badly on that third element," he says.
He says there was reluctance inside the U.S. government to oppose the ideology of Islamism, which he says is different from simple anti-American feelings.
There are many people around the world, he says, who disagree with the decisions behind American policy or dislike what the country represents. But he argues that this type of anti-American sentiment doesn't result in terrorism.
In the weeks and months following Sept. 11, the American response to the attacks helped keep terrorists in other countries off balance and have prevented them from mounting other attacks on American soil, Feith says.
"Had there been a series of follow-on attacks to 9/11," he says, "it might have transformed American society, and then no one would look back and say it was minor."
GUY RAZ, host: Today and tomorrow, we'll be speaking with some prominent voices who helped shape public opinion and policy in the months and years after September 11, 2001. In a moment, we'll hear from author George Packer, a committed liberal who became a hawk but later came to regret it.
First, though, to Douglas Feith. When he was appointed undersecretary of Defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration, he thought his focus would be on improving relations with Russia and preventing nuclear proliferation, but he ended up helping to plan and execute the war in Iraq. And to many critics of the war, he became a symbol of the so-called neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.
When we spoke, he said terrorism was certainly something people were talking about at the Pentagon before 9/11. But, of course, after, it became the only thing.
DOUGLAS FEITH: One of the main things that occurred to us after 9/11 was that the way we had thought about terrorism was really not adequate anymore. The idea that terrorism was a phenomenon of limited violence, where groups were ultimately seeking to use terrorist attacks to get international sympathy, that clearly was not an adequate way to explain 9/11. 9/11 was done by people who were not looking for international sympathy. They were looking to cause mass destruction.
RAZ: Did you believe or did you begin to see that September 11th might be an opportunity to remake parts of the world that were potentially dangerous, threatening, hostile to the United States?
FEITH: 9/11 meant that we needed to address this problem. And what was really extraordinary was what President Bush said should be the basis for our devising the U.S. response to the attack was something that no previous American president had said after a terrorist attack. And that was our key purpose is not retaliation or punishment of the people who did it, although that was an important thing to do, but it wasn't our key purpose. Our key purpose was to prevent the next attack. And that was a very ambitious and unprecedented thing for the president of the United States to say. And it meant that we needed to launch a major effort that had lots of elements that involves activities all over the world.
RAZ: When you think about all of the opportunities that were out there - encouraging democracy, for example, or maybe strengthening institutions at home, for example, whatever they may have been - do you think that they were missed opportunities as well?
FEITH: Well, I do. And I think that you put your finger on one of them. I think that the strategy that ultimately got developed in the Bush administration for dealing with the terrorism problem had three main elements. One was protecting the homeland. The second was disrupting and attacking international terrorist networks. And the third was, or should have been, countering ideological support for terrorism. I think that we fell down badly on that third element. And...
FEITH: The problem of countering an ideology, Islamism, that is it's not the same thing as Islam, but it's close enough that it made people very reluctant to take on a serious ideological campaign, as it were, to oppose the ideology that was giving rise to this terrorism.
RAZ: So in other words, that third piece of the puzzle was not properly tackled. And some would say exacerbated, right? I mean, because, as you know, I mean, anti-Americanism in the Islamic world increased after September 11th.
FEITH: Yes. I think, though, that there really is a difference between the ideology that gave rise to the terrorism and anti-Americanism. I mean, there are lots of people around the world who have a kind of anti-Americanism, opposition to various U.S. policies, and it doesn't give rise to terrorism. This ideology that is the source of the terrorism problem and makes people do things like knock down the World Trade Center objects much more fundamentally to the philosophical basis of our country and our society and of Western liberal democracy in general. It's quite a different thing from simple anti-Americanism.
RAZ: Do you think looking back on it now it was not as big as it seemed then?
FEITH: No, I think it was as big as it seemed. The destruction of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, those were major events. Part of the reason that one might now think it's not as big a problem as it seemed was precisely because the administration took it so seriously that we put in place a strategy and a set of actions to implement it that helped us achieve the main strategic purpose that the president had set, which is preventing the follow-on attack.
We know that there were attempts to make follow-on attacks. Had there been a series of successful follow-on attacks to 9/11, it might have transformed American society, and then nobody would look back and say it was minor.
RAZ: That's Doug Feith. He served four years as the under secretary of Defense for Policy under President George W. Bush. His latest book is called "War and Decision." Doug Feith, thank you.
FEITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.