"A failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away"

Iraq? Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan? Why just say it when you can keep on clouding the picture?

Published February 1, 2006 2:17PM (EST)

Were we the only ones reaching for a map during the president's State of the Union address?

As he discussed his international war on tyranny Tuesday night, George W. Bush said: "On Sept. 11, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country."

If presidential speeches were game shows, it wouldn't be a bad way to put it. "Excuses for Unpopular Wars for $200, Alex." But if the answer is "a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away whose problems brought murder and destruction to the United States on 9/11," well, what exactly is the question?

Could it be, "What is Saudi Arabia?" Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who attacked the United States on 9/11 were Saudi citizens, and their leader, Osama bin Laden, was born in Saudi Arabia and seethes with resentment directed at the Saudi government. And Riyadh is a close-enough-for-government-work 6,744 miles from Washington, D.C. But the Bush administration has never been too interested in linking 9/11 with Saudi Arabia, and we're betting that Bush didn't mean to do so Tuesday night.

So could it be, "What is Iraq?" The president would be happy to have you think so -- his vague description, followed immediately, as it was, by a discussion of "dictators" who "seek weapons of mass destuction," pretty much invited those who have been conditioned to make a mental link between Iraq and al-Qaida to do so again. But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and Baghdad is only 6,200 miles from Washington.

Well, then, could it be, "What is Afghanistan?" It's a stretch to say that "problems originating" in Afghanistan led to 9/11. While the Taliban provided a safe haven for al-Qaida, the "problems" that gave way to 9/11 weren't born in Afghanistan. The "oppressive" Taliban government didn't create al-Qaida. Bin Laden did that, and he did it almost a decade before he moved his base of operations to Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is the best choice geographically speaking -- Kabul is 6,924 miles from Washington -- and it's probably the country Bush had in his mind, even as he hoped that you'd keep Iraq in yours.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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9/11 George W. Bush Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden War Room