AUSTIN, Texas -- Osama bin Laden is back, and no one gives a damn? What is this??!! The White House spokesman announced, "This is about more than one man." The president now says it "really doesn't matter much" if bin Laden is dead or alive. This is the same president who promised to bring him back "dead or alive," isn't it?

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post dismissed bin Laden as "a blast from the past." Well, that was a helluva blast, Howard, and I for one haven't forgotten it. I want that son of a bitch dead or alive, and I want him getting him to be this country's top priority in terms of enemies.

Maybe they're downplaying bin Laden because he's so hard to get. I can understand that. It was always more of a complicated international police operation than a matter of bombing poor Afghanistan. But we knew going in that it was "a different kind of war" and that we were in it for the long haul. The one thing I never expected was that we'd just drop the whole thing.

I know we are not actually doing that, that we still have people hunting "O-sama Bin," as he is called in Texas, probably night and day. But the degree of focus and determination makes a difference in a long criminal hunt. When you let your task force get distracted by new cases, you lose focus. Like the sniper case, this one will probably be solved by a piece of luck, "a break," but you have to be looking hard for the break.

What is the tactical advantage in dismissing his reappearance as though it were of no consequence? That only encourages reluctantly cooperating intelligence agencies, like the one Pakistan, to think, "Whew, heat's off."

We weren't attacked by Iraq, we were attacked by bin Laden's terrorist network. We weren't attacked with nuclear weapons, we were attacked with box-cutters. That hate-crazed religious fanatic, so intoxicated by his own mad rhetoric that he thinks he has a right to kill people, is a clear and present danger. His organization has been striking all over the world, even blowing up Aussies in the paradisiacal Bali. But we're all supposed to focus on Saddam Hussein.

OK, let's. It seems to me we should all recognize there's a real downside risk to doing nothing about Saddam Hussein. I understand the case for doing something is well-made in Ken Pollack's new book, "The Threatening Storm" (it's a serious journalistic no-no to cite a book you haven't read: I've barely started it --but the reviews were good). I also think we need to recognize there's a serious downside risk to invading his country. I don't mean to dismiss the horror of war, and I highly recommend Chris Hedges' splendid little book (which I have finished) "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." Hedges spent years covering wars and has written the book "not to dissuade us from war, but to understand it." His understanding is profound and was earned on the ground.

But (she said, taking up the argument again), the greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win? The risks of an invasion setting off reactions from a hideous civil war in Iraq to toppling regimes all over the Middle East is very real. Also at risk is the very international cooperation necessary to track Al Qaeda.

There is a batty degree of triumphalism loose in this country right now. We are brushing off world opinion as though it mattered not a whit what other people think of us. People say dismissively, "Oh, the French have always hated us." That is simply not true. Or, "The Italians are always demonstrating about something." Half a million of them? The National Review even saw fit to run a piece by some juvenile jerk attacking Canadians as a bunch of whiny wimps. Great, just what we need -- let's see if we can possibly alienate the best neighbor any country ever had.

In the first place, that kind of arrogance is exactly what creates terrorists. In the second place, it is the cooperation of Arab countries we particularly need at this point. And long-term, when our most serious problems will be lack of water, overpopulation and global warming, international cooperation will be critical to our lives.

The way one solves problems obviously influences not only the outcome, but the kinds of problems one faces after the immediate problem is settled. If we use war, the other problems will in turn be harder to solve. Including and especially getting bin Laden.

So it seems to me, we should be engaged not in some simplistic debate about hawks and doves, or even chickenhawks and doves, but a sober, thorough and very realistic weighing of the relative risks involved. While we focus on Al Qaeda.

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