Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Medvedev raises doubts on Putin succession question

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev raised doubts Tuesday that he and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were working together to determine who will run for president in 2012.

Speaking at the Valdai conference of Russia experts in Moscow, Medvedev responded to Putin's comments last week, when the prime minister told attendees, "We're people of the same blood, with the same political views," referring to the president. "When it comes to 2012, we'll work it out together."

"We'll have a test to see whether we have the same blood type," said Medvedev, indicating that he might not be a fan of Putin's aspirations to seek a third term so soon.

Georgetown University scholar Angela E. Stent, who attended both speeches, said that Medvedev's comments introduced even greater ambiguity into the process and were a clear signal that the two Russian leaders were not on the exact same page.

"One comes away with the impression that anything could happen in 2012," she said in an interview with The Cable from Moscow. "It's definitely an open question."

Piotr Dutkiewicz, director of the Institute for European Studies at Ottowa's Carleton University, called in from Moscow to relay an additional Medvedev quote: "I have to take my own interests into account in the potential deal [about the 2012 elections]," the president said.

Dutkiewicz said that while it was probably too early to game out the election politics, Putin clearly has the upper hand because his political ratings are higher, but Medvedev has plenty of time to prove some successes on the ground and make a run.

"Putin has all the ties with oil and gas industry, so he controls the flow of money to the Russian Federation's coffers," Dutkiewicz added.

On intimacy, a “W” shaped recovery for the Republicans and Latin relations heading south…

I can't be sure, not being a neuroscientist, but I have this theory that the brain works kind of like a Dustbuster. It sucks up all sorts of stuff and then every so often you have to dump it out or it gets clogged up and stops working. Here are some of the bits and pieces that came out this morning:

When Does Lack of Intimacy Mean You're Almost Certain to be Screwed?

I spoke with a friend yesterday who is a real live foreign policy professional. We were discussing the fact that my two daughters are heading off to college in a few days and that I would be an empty-nester soon. (Or as I like to call it: "Crawling under the bed and curling up in a fetal position.") He said it was a great opportunity to get to know one's wife again, recounting his experience of having his kids depart and then looking up and asking himself, "Who the hell is this woman in my living room?"

I responded that with the kind of skills he seems to have developed he could have become a marriage counselor and then added, "come to think of it, given your current line of work, that probably comes in handy." He then told a story about how a lack of what he called "intimacy"...of the diplomatic sort...was a challenge in one international context with which he was dealing.

I couldn't resist pointing out that in marriage, a lack of intimacy usually means you are not getting fucked... but in diplomacy, it means you almost certainly will be.

The Republicans' W-Shaped Recovery

America's Republican leadership is almost giddy with the turbulence they are causing for the Obama Administration on health care. After the political death march of the Bush years and the drubbing by Obama, they are desperate for signs of life in their party. But frankly, after some examination, my death panel votes "do not resuscitate."

The problem is that despite the media's delight with covering nutsy women with Obama-as-Nazi posters, great retorts to them like that of Barney Frank who to his great credit does not suffer vile imbeciles lightly, Kansas congresswomen musing aloud about the G.O.P.'s need for a "great white hope", porn-star-named Idaho gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell joking about "hunting" Obama, and the like, stirring up hatred is not enough to bring even the Republican Party back to life.

There is almost zero possibility that some form of health care legislation will not be signed into law this year. It may not be everything Obama wanted, but the reality is it will probably big the biggest set of reforms in decades. Recent polling covered in today's Washington Post also shows growing support for Obama's climate and energy proposals which are the next big item in the pipeline. And on the one issue that the Republicans probably had a good positive case to make, regarding deficit reduction, statements from Tim Geithner and others in the administration make it clear that as we move into recovery, they are going to begin cutting making reducing the deficit a top priority. Given that the Republican Party's actual record on the deficit is so woeful, this too will make their lives much more difficult.

The result: after hopes of a rebound on the back of their health care opposition, the Republicans could be faced with the same "W" shaped scenario economists like Nouriel Roubini are worried about re: the economy. Further, leaderless and in disarray, they won't even be in a good position to take advantage of that if it happens. The result might be picking up only a modest number of seats-below historical norms-in the 2010 mid-term elections and leaving a more experienced Obama team with very substantial majorities for the second half of his first term.

How do you say "plus ca change" in Spanish?

I'm sure there are those on Capitol Hill who think depriving the administration of senior officials has little or no effect. Most don't think about the consequences of their actions at all, of course. But perhaps if they would direct their attentions southward they might benefit from the case study that is unfolding.

When President Obama left the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago there was much hope for a new era of north-south relations in the Americas. Now, just a few months later, with Antonia Valenzuela, Obama's nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, cooling his heels while there is a hold on his nomination, things have taken a turn for the worst. In rapid succession, the countries of the region, some very well disposed toward Obama at the outset, have been disappointed by the U.S. failure to aggressively promote the restoration of a democratically elected president in Honduras, its not-so-deftly managed announcement of a military basing deal with the Colombians and its too-quiet response to moves to by Colombia's President Uribe to revise his country's constitution so he can seek another term of office. This turn of events has resulted in some tough talk publicly and, apparently, in private exchanges such as that Obama recently had with Brazil's President Lula, a man with whom the new U.S. president has established a very good rapport.

To many in the region, the new U.S. President is starting to look, as they might say down on the estancia, to be all hat and no cattle. Maybe, they are murmuring...well, some are murmuring, some like Hugo Chavez are shouting it from the rooftop...nothing really has changed with the U.S.

With a little more bandwidth devoted to these issues the U.S. could easily have managed all of them to a better outcome. They could have done more to pressure the interim regime in Honduras to enable the return of the elected president and they could have addressed his efforts to rig Honduran democracy in his favor by helping to ensure a transparent election this Fall. As for the Colombian bases, that shouldn't have been a big issue. The U.S. has had a presence in the region for years. Coordination and communication could easily have been handled better. And as for Uribe, a more forceful public message that he should pursue his distinguished public service career in a new role would have been appropriate.

Instead, whenever Valenzuela is confirmed (in September, one hopes), he is going to find he has some repair work to do in the region, which will be an unfortunate distraction from some of the bigger issues on the regional agenda like: working with Mexico on our shared security concerns, helping to combat the shift of drug transshipment to Central America which could have a very destabilizing effect, working to shape a new partnership with Brazil, dealing with climate, with economic recovery issues, etc.

Why "Guards Gone Wild" are a symptom of a much bigger challenge for policymakers...

The revelations of out of control behavior among the guards assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul no doubt brought to mind the images of out of control behavior by guards at Abu Ghraib. But there is an important distinction. The guards at Abu Ghraib were U.S. military personnel. The embassy guards were hired guns, part of the outsourcing explosion that is transforming the way the United States conducts its foreign policy.

The embassy guards were not employees of the U.S. government, did not report up a chain of command to senior U.S. military officers who could make career-ending decisions for them, were not subject to the same rules as U.S. military personnel and, perhaps most importantly, blurred important lines about the nature and role of government.

As most people now know, they also allegedly engaged in "lewd and deviant behavior" featuring nudity, drunkenness, hookers, and other behavior more suited for the cast of a Joe Francis video than U.S. embassy security forces, particularly those in a dangerous environment or a country in which strict Islamic values played such a central role. Why it took a report from the Project on Government Oversight to call out these Guards-Gone-Wild and their employers at ArmorGroup, a subsidiary of Miami-based Wackenhut Services, Inc. is a question worth asking.

But the bigger question in the wake of this behavior and other examples of out of control contractors, most notably the cowboys from Blackwater, who allegedly killed as many as 17 Iraqi civilians while providing an escort for State Department personnel in Baghdad's Nissour Square, is about the centrality of outsourcing in the conduct of sensitive U.S. operations worldwide.

The Congressional Research Service reported that well over half of America's manpower in Afghanistan, for example, is comprised of contractors -- almost 70,000 of them. They cited it as the "highest recorded percentage of DoD contractors in any conflict in the history of the United States."

How did we get here? Well, some of it was clearly expediency ... beneath which investigation will reveal another level of expediency. The first level is the one cited by government officials hiring the contractors: they provide skill sets needed by the government and the ability to deploy human resources quickly in difficult circumstances. The second level is that by using contractors, the Bush Administration was able to field twice as many people in Afghanistan with half the political exposure. Headlines report troop deployments. They ignore the ArmorGroups and Blackwaters until they screw up, misbehave or start making obscene amounts of money ... all of which are part of the story of the Bush War on Terror.

But at another level, not only do they put America's goals at risk, they also raise important questions about fairly fundamental questions like "who has the right to legitimately use force?" Traditionally that's a prerogative reserved for states, notes Allison Stanger, professor of international politics and economics and director of the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs, and author of the much anticipated One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy, to be published by Yale University Press next month. But by handing over a license to kill to big American companies, that line is blurred observes Stanger, which plays directly into the hands of America's enemies.

Stanger is not, it should be noted, an adversary of using outsourcing to leverage American government resources. Indeed, her much-needed upcoming book considers how broadly outsourcing has transformed the way government works in a wide range of issues including areas such as development where NGOs and other private sector players add a great deal of value. But she is a sharp critic of what she sees as outsourcing approaches that undercut America's foreign policy interests either by compromising values or raising risks. (See her recent U.S. News column "How the CIA Became Dangerously Dependent on Foreign Contractors" which addresses similar problems associated with the agency's use of contractors in covert programs to hunt down and kill al Qaeda members.)

Her point is simply that while it makes sense to leverage government resources with private sector capabilities in many instances, we need clearer rules and guidelines about how and when to do it. Her book could not be coming at a more auspicious time and one hopes that her work will get a close reading at State, the Pentagon, and from the leaders of the Intelligence Communi

The day of the locos...

Yes, "Morning Joe" thought the hot story out of the Venice Film Festival was the footage of an exuberant gay Italian man stripping down and begging for a kiss from George Clooney. But they missed the bigger story. Perhaps they were too dazzled by the flashbulbs or their reporter was unable to make his way through the fawning, screeching crowds of fans. But there, upstaging the canals and the pigeons of St. Marks was Hollywood's newest hunk, Hugo Chavez. And just like Clooney, he had his retinue of crazed admirers. In Chavez's case however, the heavy-breathing was coming from director Oliver Stone, who was in town to promote his latest labor of love, a valentine to Chavez called "South of the Border."

And you thought George W. Bush was Yale's most embarrassing graduate...

This new film -- which is not, incidentally, named after the South Carolina roadside tourist trap of the same name -- builds on Stone's unwitting reputation as a master of historical fiction. Whereas some filmmakers are known for their camera work or story-telling, Stone is best known for his inability to separate fact from fairy-tale. First, came JFK, which provided the same view of the Kennedy assassination you would get after huffing glue while watching the Zapruder film. Other fantasies made their way into his movies on Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Appropriately, therefore, the best of all summaries of his worldview came in the description of his "single plane theory" of the 9/11 attacks as reported by the Onion. (Given Stone's track record, the fact that it is completely made up is precisely the reason it should be treated as the truth.)

Here's an excerpt of Time's review of the film:

Every step of the way, Stone is by, and on, on the President's side. He raises no tough issues, some of which are summarized in Amnesty International's 2009 report on Venezuela: "Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human-rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country." Referring to the 2006 election in which Chávez won a third term, Stone tells viewers that "90% of the media was opposed to him," and yet he prevailed. "There is a lesson to be learned," Stone says. Yes: support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station or TV network may be in jeopardy.

According to Variety, Stone said, ""You can't get a fair hearing for Chavez. It's an outrageous caricature they've drawn of him in the Western press."

Yes. Outrageous. Let's just take a few items of Chavez news from around the world that have crossed the wires in just the past couple days and draw our own conclusions, shall we?

Let's start with the mildly comic. In Belarus, Chavez met with President Alexander Lukashenko (the White Russian version of a caudillo). There, according to AFP:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday boasted of his good ties with fellow Western critic Belarus, even suggesting the two countries could become part of a Soviet-style union.

Chavez held talks in Minsk with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko marked by a chummy bonhomie that saw the pair also propose they travel the length and breadth of Venezuela in the near future.

"We need to create a new union of republics," Chavez told Lukashenko, according to a statement from the Belarussian presidency.

Today, in moves that are not so laughable, Chavez will meet with Russian officials where he is expected to discuss further arms sales, military cooperation and energy deals.

More ominously, today Chavez also stirred up a torrent of controversy when he accused Israel of genocide.

The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They're doing it openly," Chavez said in an interview with Le Figaro published on Wednesday.

The Venezuelan president, who has just completed a tour of Middle Eastern and Arab countries, brushed aside Israeli assertions that its attack on Gaza was a response to rocket fire from Islamist group Hamas which rules the coastal enclave.

"What was it if not genocide? ... The Israelis were looking for an excuse to exterminate the Palestinians," Chavez said, adding that sanctions should have been slapped on Israel.

While perhaps Stone would agree with these rants (and while he might disagree with Elliot Abrams's excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post taking former President Jimmy Carter to task for his similarly one-sided, overstated and distorted views), his past record of using and abusing the truth like other directors do starlets suggests that he might not dig far enough into the facts to recognize that his film's hero is deeply in bed with some of the very worst of the Middle East's bad actors.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there is the very thoughtful and profoundly disturbing column by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in yesterday's Wall Street Journal detailing a growing case that Chavez and the Iranians are up to the worst kind of no good in this neighborhood. (Connecting the dots between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Chavez's views is very easy when you do a little more research than Stone did.) Morgenthau writes:

Why is Hugo Chávez willing to open up his country to a foreign nation with little shared history or culture? I believe it is because his regime is bent on becoming a regional power, and is fanatical in its approach to dealing with the U.S. The diplomatic overture of President Barack Obama in shaking Mr. Chávez's hand in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago is no reason to assume the threat has diminished. In fact, with the groundwork laid years ago, we are entering a period where the fruits of the Iran-Venezuela bond will begin to ripen.

That means two of the world's most dangerous regimes, the self-described "axis of unity," will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology. And it seems that terrorist groups have found the perfect operating ground for training and planning, and financing their activities through narco-trafficking.

His theory is supported not only by the evidence outlined in his article but also by statements earlier this week that Chavez intended to provide oil to Iran in the event the world's leading powers attempt to impose an embargo on the country should it continue to pursue its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Iranian intransigence could put the U.S. on a collision course not only with Tehran but with suppliers like Chavez -- a fact which could delay his getting a star on Hollywood's walk of fame indefinitely as well as causing a real foreign policy headache for the Obama administration.

However, there are always two sides to every story (at least ... around the dinner table in my house growing up there were typically many more than that). And as dark as is the picture of Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation painted by Morgenthau there will always be someone who sees the happy Hollywood ending to such collaborations. And of course, for that we can always turn to Stone. Because according to The Guardian, Chavez's Leni Riefenstahl is currently planning as an encore "an interview film with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Update: We just heard from Willie Geist of "Morning Joe" who noted that they did their takedown of Chavez and Stone earlier this week. I should have known that Geist, who has one of television's best B.S. detectors and, even rarer, a great sense of humor, would never have let this story slip through the cracks.

How much do I hear for one almost new, unused reset button?

With the statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserting that his country would not support sanctions against Iran and his dismissal of U.S. calls for a negotiating timetable with that country, several important questions are raised. They are:

First, how do you like your Iranian nukes? Fried or over-easy?

In other words, without sanctions Iran's program progresses. That leaves two choices: Israel steps up and takes military action to set back the program or second, we simply roll-over and get used to the world's largest state-sponsor of terror producing the nuclear weapons the U.S. intel community now believes they are capable of making.

My sense is that the risk of Israeli military moves just went up dramatically ... and it was pretty high to begin with. But they will only set back the Iranian program briefly if they do intervene and the resulting turmoil on the international scene is likely to produce plenty of blowback for an Israel that is already more isolated than it has been in forty years.

But on the question at hand, let's be absolutely clear: Russia has just essentially unilaterally given the green light to Tehran to join the nuclear weapons club. Russia can block action in the Security Council and no effort to, for example, halt oil and gas flows to Iran could work without Russian cooperation. The last chance of stopping the Iranians over the long-term has probably therefore been undercut. As disturbingly, the Russian message is clearly that this is something they actually support. Otherwise, they could have kept their own counsel while negotiations continued. They didn't have to tip their hand now unless they wanted to scuttle the entire negotiation process. They are saying they believe their approach is the one most likely to work with Tehran. Tehran may even find ways to pretend it is working. But without any effective international levers against the Iranians, they have been given the go-ahead to pursue whatever agenda they choose.

Second, in a related vein, what was Bibi doing in Moscow?

If he was there, as current speculation suggests, to press the Russians to stop shipments of S300 missiles to Iran, that didn't turn out so well, with Russia standing by its right to engage in arms sales with the Iranians...and then adding a threat of severe consequences if Israel or another state used military measures to stop the Iranian nuclear program. At this point, with the Russians providing so much diplomatic, political and military cover for the Iranian efforts, it is almost tempting to start referring to Tehran's initiative as a joint Russian-Iranian nuclear program.

Third, will it be NPT 2.0, NPT 1.1 or N2PT?

Once it is recognized that Iran's entrance into the nuclear club proves (yet again) the impotence of the non-proliferation treaty do we go for an entirely new agreement, a variation on what we have now or just accept that what we have is really the N2PT, which is to say the non-nonproliferation treaty (this is one case where a double negative definitely does not equal a positive.) A completely new deal is, in reality, a non-starter because it would be impossible to get agreement from many nations to opt in. The U.S. view is to renovate the sagging framework of the existing agreement with a much more robust international mechanism for dealing with the creation and disposal of nuclear fuel. But the real question is whether or not there will ever be an enforcement mechanism strong enough to enable multilateral inspections and to ensure multilateral action in the face of proven violations. Actually, Russia has gone quite a long way toward answering that ... which in turn raises another question: Just what is the best way to safely dispose of spent nuclear agreements?

Finally, just how much does Russia have to do before they go from being a contentious partner to actually once again being an enemy?

Ok, this is rhetorical. Given that this week Russia became the world's largest petroleum exporter, we're not going to be outright enemies with them. After all, we've long proven that if you give us a nice meal and pump enough oil into us, we're easy ... or at least flexible. Still, after a rough visit to Moscow by Obama, differences on missile defense, Russia's calls for a new global currency, Russian efforts to place itself at the center of every emerging global alliance to counterbalance the United States, provocative weapons deals with among others Tehran and Caracas, possible missile shipments on board ships that disappear and reappear, aggression in the near-abroad and torpedoing our efforts to stop Iran short of gaining nuclear weapons, you've got to start wondering when we're going to get the message. They'll take whatever we have to give but their agenda diverges from ours on a wide array of critical issues and on some, they conflict with us directly and, one might almost say, exultantly.

Oh, we'll try to put a good face on it. But note: they have given us every incentive to start working hard on our new BIC strategy ... which is to say trying to isolate Russia among the leaders of the emerging world by forging stronger ties with China, India and Brazil (among others). This in turn raises the final question in this litany: which is how much do you think we can get on eBay for one virtually new, unused reset button? Perhaps there is a museum somewhere that would like to put it in a display alongside Neville Chamberlain's umbrella.

Since when did trade policy become a covert operation?

Like thieves in the night, the administration snuck out an announcement late Friday evening that President Obama had signed an order imposing massive duties on Chinese tires. The United States argued that a "surge" in sales of the Chinese tires indicated unfair pricing and resulted in the loss of 7,000 U.S. jobs. They did so at the urging of unions and despite a lack of support from U.S. tire manufacturers, many of which are already producing tires in China. Naturally, the Chinese erupted with cries of "rampant protectionism" and introduced their own twist on giving the United States the bird with threats of retaliation against U.S. poultry imports. Vehicles may also be targeted.

Why you might ask would they do it late on a Friday evening, after newspapers and evening news shows had seen their deadlines pass? And more saliently, why might the United States do this, in the first place?

Of course, the first question is easy. The Obama administration was trying to bury the story. You can hardly blame them. It's not pretty. It's pure politics. I'm all for using trade laws to ensure fair trade. But, the U.S. case here is weak and its timing is appalling.

Which in turn gets us to the second question.

Just one day earlier Russia's announcement of its desire not to impose sanctions on Iran in an effort to restrain its nuclear arms ambitions had U.S. officials scrambling for plan B. One very senior official mentioned to me this would mean an intensified effort to reach out to the Chinese. Eight hours later we imposed these duties on them. Now I understand that the secret to a successful "partnership" with the Chinese is the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time -- or more accurately to walk together while occasionally smacking each other around the head and face. But still, a little thoughtful coordination might be nice.

Given the central importance of China on Iran, of China on North Korea, of China on the global economic recovery, of China on climate and given the weakness of the case on tires and the generally lousy message it sends regarding our stance on trade (the Obama team's first big trade move is clearly a protectionist one), couldn't this have been tabled? Handled another way?

It should have been, of course. But it wasn't for two reasons. One is that the administration needs the unions to get out there and provide grass roots support on the health care bill. That's been commented on by others and is certainly an important piece of explaining this move which, at best, can be described as ill-timed and ill-considered.

But there is another undercurrent here. This was just one of several moves last week that suggest that the Obama administration sees another threat that is more important to its own survival than whatever happens in Iran or on climate or even on health care. What Iranian nukes are to Israel in the way of an existential threat, unemployment rates are to the Democratic majority in Congress in terms of next year's elections. You will see many offensives from this ambitious administration over the next 18 months but the most central from a political point of view will be a full-court press to show that not only do they care about jobs but that they have a plan for reversing the losses that have been the most painful dimension of this recession.

So last week there were several early steps in this regard. Positioning themselves as a champion of job preservation to unions on tires was just one. Moving car czar Ron Bloom to become the "manufacturing czar" was another. And, buried in today's announcements of financial reforms you will find announcements of continued financing supports for small businesses that were retained despite reported resistance from the Fed. These are just minor tactical moves. But taken together you are seeing the first volleys in a battle to position the administration as activists on job creation. Climate legislation may falter, but rest assured there will be an energy bill that is positioned largely as a green jobs bill in any case. There may not be another stimulus package in name, but next year's budget will contain one within it and the focus will be jobs.

There's no harm in this, in principle, of course. Indeed, it makes sense and one hopes that the administration's economic team gets in front of this story in a way they did not on health care, defining goals and principles clearly and early. But the administration needs to be careful. Exports are a leading U.S. job creator and triggering global protectionism and trade wars worldwide while simultaneously hanging back from getting FTAs approved or making progress on a global round of trade talks is a proven way of losing jobs in the name of creating them.

And if you are losing jobs through protectionism and losing vital partners internationally at the same time, well, that's a formula for trouble that can't even be hidden by quasi-clandestine press announcements late on a Friday night.

How to differentiate

One of the things I learned from Geoffrey Moore’s seminar is the notion of unique differentiation. He said a true “position” isn’t the one you’d like your company to have, but rather the position it actually occupies within a system you didn’t create.

In other words, positioning and differentiation isn’t an exercise in myopic navel gazing. It’s got to be externally driven and take into account the strengths and weaknesses of your real competition while also focusing on customer value. Understand what’s out there – and what’s needed - to set your organization apart.

To differentiate, go outside-in, and bottom-up:

* Identify real people – Start by finding your organization’s real customers/consumers. Don’t focus on big picture targets (e.g. “this Fortune 500 company”), but rather specific individuals who may buy – and have bought –your products/services.
* Talk to them – Differentiation isn’t about “making up” your company’s difference, it’s finding what objectively sets it apart. Understand what people want and why. If a customer, uncover what their experiences have been. Use social media to query larger samples. Online discussions and chat rooms are an effective way to gather opinions. Capture enough perspective so you can make accurate interpretations.
* Understand customer value – Value is the difference between the benefits consumers realize minus the cost to buy, use and maintain your product or service. Differentiation is successful when the value perceived exceeds the cost of usage. For example, if someone buys a more expensive product with more features, but it takes longer to install and use it, then this competitive “uniqueness” may not be valued highly enough, thus eroding differentiation (and credibility).
* Analyze your competition –Read blogs, troll social nets, and read articles and industry analyst reports to determine which particular companies “own” various strengths and leadership attributes within your market category. Also analyze competitive Web sites to capture their strategic messaging, leadership claims and customer testimonial insight. If other companies claim superiority in an area you believe your company has greater uniqueness, then you’ll need to work harder to create stickiness.
* Evaluate core competencies – With external insight in hand, shift inward and identify core competencies. Most reliable? Easiest to use? Superior service? Higher quality? Remember, to successfully differentiate, a core competency has to be competitively unique but also be perceived by consumers as valued uniqueness. Matrix your core competencies into the external insight you acquired.
* Isolate “the one thing” – As you zero-in on a core differentiating competency, force your company to articulate this in a “one thing” manner. Stand for one distinctive thing and people will remember.
* Don’t forget longevity – Short-term differentiation isn’t ideal. Anticipate and discuss things like price erosion, imitation and competitive leaps. While you can’t plan against disruptive technologies, you can proactively assess what currently exists and try to factor-in competitive incrementalism in differentiation claims.

* Fine-tune – If necessary, fine-tune your “one thing” differentiation to make it more appealing. For example, if your solution is more expensive, can you find ways to reduce costs in areas that are unimportant to the buyer? This will improve profitability while reducing the likelihood of competitors gaining ground from a price position. Customer Experience Matters - http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/

* Proof points – Claiming leadership and differentiation – by yourself for yourself - doesn’t cut it. You have to supplement this internal view with third-party perspective, viewed by the marketplace as credible and true. Consumers, customers and prospects are the best way to differentiate. So are objective (non-paid) direct comparisons. Get credible sources to step up to the plate and validate your differentiation. Also remember to identify any and all proof points that will credibly back-up your differentiation claims.
* Be bold – To differentiate, you can’t be a wallflower – you have to stand out. Express differentiation in a colorful way so people notice and remember it.

* Communicate – Once you’ve built your differentiation, work hard to integrate this messaging platform across all communication vehicles. Your Web site. SEO. Advertising. Web-news. Presentations. Great messaging is pervasive and consistent.

* Experience is everything – What you say has to be consistent with what you do. If a company claims “best service” but a customer is frustrated dealing with one of their people, then brand position erodes in the mind (and heart) of that consumer. Walk the walk at every touch point.

How to create customer personas

A company can never know its customers too well; that’s why an increasing number are creating fictional – yet amazingly accurate - personas to guide their sales and marketing efforts.

Companies are developing personas because they understand customers can’t be reduced to broad demographics – e.g., average age, education, ethnicity, family status – nor statistics. They intuitively understand the value of visualizing their audience better to sell and serve them. But rather than trying to know each and every customer (an impossible task for most), companies get to know the handful of proxies who represent them.

Personas are archetypal customers/consumers who represent the major categories of people who buy and use a company’s products and/or services. Many large consumer companies have embraced personas as a memorable way to segment and envision the people they serve. Personas energize companies by focusing everyone in an organization around a common view of the customer. Not surprisingly, business-to-business (B2B) companies are beginning to road test them.

Image credit: Cisco www.cisco.com

Meet Molly. She’s 34, with a BA in business from a state university. Molly’s married, with two kids ages three and five. She cares about nutrition and runs as often as she can, sometimes competitively. She drives a mid-sized SUV, is into photography and social networking (Facebook especially). Molly works at an international consumer products company (athletic footwear, clothing) in the IT department where she manages security. She’s professional, appealing and straightforward, but sometimes harried and impatient. Molly wants to stay on top of the latest technology to reduce her company’s data risks while keeping internal constituents happy. She’s sometimes overwhelmed by the diversity of security options out there and appreciates helpful perspective and clarity.

Personas start with generalities like these and then get more specific to bring the representative character to life. They include demographic data and other characterizing elements such as career concerns, personalities, attitudes, motivations and objectives.

Here are 11 tips for getting started:

1. Convene a group of employees who interact with your customers and prospects, e.g., customer service, support, salespeople, channel partners and senior executives – those on the front lines. Gather their perspective but be wary of internal bias or myopia.
2. Conduct customer/prospect research including in-person meetings as well as phone-based interviews and online surveys. Tag along on in-person sales calls. Look for consistent patterns; common needs, expectations, frustrations, opinions and psychological motivators.
3. Reconvene and propose a few archetypal personas. How many personas do you need? There’s no single number of personas that works best. Go with whatever number accurately captures the major categories of customers; keep the total number as manageable as possible. Four to six are typical for most B2B companies.
4. Describe the category of company each works for; characteristics could potentially include: industry, size, vertical market, competitive environment, type of employer, and corporate culture.
5. Describe the person at the workplace to get a full, rounded picture of who this person represents. This should include demographic data; job title and focus; challenges they face; how the person fits within their organization; their role in the buying cycle; key questions they’d ask you; trigger words that would invoke a helpful reaction; skillset/competency levels; key job objectives and responsibilities; attitudes; key behaviors; what would make their job more effective; how their time is typically spent, etc.

Image credit: Image credit: L + E (Logic + Emotion) http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/
6. Describe the person outside the workplace – how they dress; what food they like; hobbies; habits; type of car; education; interests; and psychological attributes.
7. Find the areas of commonality and bring these all together under one persona. Create personas for each major customer grouping. Reach consensus agreement.
8. Describe them; find a photo; name the customer; give him/her an age, title.
9. Frame marketing messages, think about the marketing resources this persona might tap to learn more about your type of offerings/services/products, e.g. white papers, articles, Web sites, news releases, speakers, online communities, events, Twitter, etc.
10. Think about the way each persona will guide different functional areas within your company. Engage key players so they embed this unifying view of the customer in their own decision making and day-to-day activities in sales, marketing, HR, communications, finance, etc.

11. Update and modifypersonas as real-world insight unfolds.

One word of caution: Despite all your work to typify customers, experts warn against stereotyping. So go beyond quick and dirty brainstorming and take it seriously. Your personas need to be as real as the human beings they represent.

Strategy & tactics - the difference explained

I was in a meeting the other day and a CMO kept confusing “strategic” with “tactical.” It reminded me of all the times I’ve encountered this in my career.

Strategy is rooted in a plan of action that’s focused on accomplishing a specific goal that’s high level. Tactics are the way the strategy is carried out.

Borrowing from the journalistic “five Ws and one H,” strategy is the “who, what and why” and tactics are the “where, when and how.”

Strategy involves proactively determining the ultimate endgame. Tactics are the things you do to achieve the strategic goal.

Doing something strategicallyinvolves the following:

1. Identify a specific outcome you want to achieve
2. Conduct research (market, competitive, attitudinal) to establish a realistic “baseline” starting point that takes into consideration internal and external realities
3. Put together a proactive plan that leverages the research findings, anticipates issues, looks at the big picture and incorporates specific strategic objectives and end results
4. Engage in consensus building with appropriate groups and individuals; get key people on board to support the strategy

Doing something tacticallymeans you:

1. Understand the strategic goals
2. Create plans focused on specific activities mapped into specific timeframes with specific outcomes
3. Make sure the tactical activities are carried out well
4. Measure their impact and help tie tactics back to the strategic plan

Strategy includes creating a different reality via creative, smart planning. Tactics are focused actions. The two are deeply intertwined. You need both to achieve branding

How to build customer communities

As consumers, we instinctively sense product and service experiences at a gut-feel level. Within minutes, we can gauge whether a company is telling the truth, trying to evade, or scam us. We've developed a low tolerance for poor service - calls that aren't returned; e-mails that aren't acknowledged; rudeness; unnecessarily complex transactions; people who don't seem to care; interactions that should be easy, but aren't.

When companies do what they say they’ll do on a consistent basis, then we’re generally pleased and become loyal to that brand. When we’re not satisfied, we often start complaining, and ultimately stop buying.

Social media changed the game forever by giving us a voice (a.k.a. power, influence, clout) we never had. While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) maintains an active Bureau of Consumer Protection, a bunch of other grassroots online sites emerged including complaints.com, pissedconsumer.com, iripoff.com, consumeraffairs.com and the influential consumerist.com.

Now when we're ticked off, we can immediately voice our dissatisfaction and get it spotlighted. People around the world are tuned-in and pass the word, triggering a "many-to many" conversation.

Take, for example, the recent "United Breaks Guitars" online video phenomenon, where one mistreated customer virtually turned the entire world against United for its poor handling of his damaged property. Or Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who deeply offended a huge percentage of the chain’s progressive demographics and triggered a nationwide boycott when he railed against healthcare reform in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Companies and organizations need to remember that a great brand is built when it dedicates itself to creating a product and service experience that consistently meets the needs of people who consume that service or product. The companies that try hard to listen and learn - and improve all the time – build the loyal followings. The ones that don’t fall by the wayside, are marginalized or die.

Listen to your customers and seek out their opinions on a regular basis. There are lots of ways to do this. Private, online, paid community platforms like Communispace encourage ongoing conversations. You can build relationships online for free with CrowdVine, Ning, Elgg and Joomla (some will be easier to set up and use than others). Discussion boards pre-date the Web, but are still an important (and often overlooked) tool in community building. Yahoo Groups and Google Groups are two of the most popular discussion forum platforms, and the original USENET/LISTSERV is still going strong. There’s also some open source discussion forum software you can customize to meet precise look-and-feel branding needs.

Use these tools to probe ideas, ask for feedback, debate and continually improve. Incorporate customer feedback into your offerings and they’ll know you appreciate their input.

If you don’t want your company to end up on consumerist.com or pissedconsumer.com, remember to:

· Build two-way relationships with your customers. People have relationships with people.

· Create an authentic persona for your company; give it a personality; make it human; share some behind-the-curtains perspective. Blogs are one of the best ways to nurture & sustain this kind of voice.

· Don’t avoid online problems, deal with negative online comments and emerging issues immediately. You don’t have to agree all the time, but you’ve got to listen. Share your perspective and be willing to entertain a different viewpoint. You may reach a logger-head where neither party will budge; that’s okay; just don’t be autocratic. It’s the genuine attempt & transparency that matters in social media.

· Make it easy for your customers to talk to you. Visualize those aggravating instances where your specific question as a consumer is answered with a generic email response, over and over again. Don’t do this. Be personal, be prompt.

When companies behave this way, they’re fulfilling the textbook definition of “living the brand promise.” Doing it right means beginning a conversation that never ends.

How blogging positively impacts sales

The CEO sitting next to me the other day heads a very successful company. She understands marketing and gets social media. But when the subject of blogging came up, she went down an interesting path.

“I still don’t get why we need to blog. Who’s going to visit our Web site to read our blog? On top of that, we're real busy and don’t have a lot of extra time to write content consistently. I don’t want to start and stop; that’s worse than never starting. So why is blogging so critical?”

She may appear to have a good point. After all, some 175,000 blogs are created daily. Technorati estimates the number of blogs at 113 million (with 7.5 million of them active). 184 million bloggers are creating 570,000 posts every 24 hours, reaching 70 percent of Web surfers daily.

With all this blogging going on – and the mind-numbing reality of 175,000 new blogs coming to life daily – why is it so important?

We’ve all heard the litany of high-level reasons why companies should blog, including:

* builds two-way communication with your customers
* creates a persona that’s three dimensional vs. one dimensional
* an otherwise stilted brand can become approachable
* it’s arguably the most personal form of communication
* gives your company a voice
* creates transparency and builds trust
* more real time than traditional communication
* triggers a conversation that builds community over time
* imparts authenticity
* yada yada yada

I knew the CEO next to me had heard this stuff before. So I didn’t go there. Knowing she was a pragmatic, revenue-enhancing, lead generating type, I talked, instead, about the correlation between blogging and sales (something you don’t hear enough about).

Blogging matters because of search.

Before explaining how blogging plays a central role in generating sales leads, I emphasized the need to get search engine optimization (SEO) right. That’s where the journey should begin. SEO and blogging go together; they're buddies. Once the SEO foundation is laid, a company can move forward with blogging which is one of the best ways to create pages that are keyword dense and optimized.

If you write compelling content that people naturally search for, they will discover you, visit your site, probe and (hopefully) become engaged. Just don’t make the mistake of writing myopically about your company, products, services and promotions. Build a higher-level voice based on topics people (who don’t know you) will search for. Whereas the majority of Web site content is static, blogs are alive with fluid, current thinking.

Remember that blogging isn’t an occasional thing; you need to do it often enough to build an authentic voice and aura of authority. That typically means daily or at least weekly. Nothing looks worse than a withering blog without a post for weeks or months.

Blogs directly impact sales because they drive traffic back to your blogs and Web site, including traffic from referring Web sites. They're one of the best ways to increase linkage (links) which is critical to broadening readership.

Another way blogs can stimulate sales is by gathering periodic "best of" compilations. Select 4-5 of your company's best posts and send them to a targeted e-mail list and social networks (LinkedIn and Facebook are good places to start). This way the content they may have missed by not searching or visiting your web site is delivered to their desktop. Do this every month or every other month to create a consistent flow. And don’t forget to tweet your blog posts.

My CEO friend asked one more question: “Does it matter that our company isn’t selling our products and services online?” I told her it doesn’t; we’re talking apples and oranges. Even if you’re not selling online, people are finding you online.

Thanks to search, the function of marketing shifted (awhile ago) from one-way push to many-to-many pull. Now, thankfully, a direct connection occurs, and it’s coming bottom-up - from prospects, customers, friends, fans, etc. - vs. top-down.

How to develop customer references

Business-to-business companies have a much harder time developing customer references vs. consumer companies. Here’s some of the feedback I hear all the time:

“Corporate Communications and/or Legal (on the customer side) shuts us down every time.”

“Our customers consider their use of our product a proprietary advantage and don’t want to talk about it publicly.”

“We have a handful of customers and zero leverage at this stage getting them to be references.”

“They like us, but can’t endorse us.”

“Only a finite group are referenceable and they’ve been leveraged heavily by many different groups within our company, especially sales. PR isn’t often at the top of the list.”

While there certainly are instances where a given customer can’t be a reference, case closed, there are many proven techniques to engage others:

Think micro, not macro – The highest impact customer references are strategically targeted and proactively nurtured. They’re not random “dialing for dollars” occurrences. Analyze your customer base to target particular customers who provide a ‘great fit’ advantage for you, and them. Sort your customers by reference objective. Then go after them individually in a thoughtful way.

Leverage C-Level execs – Don’t approach critical potential customer references with junior people. Instead, elevate this outreach to the highest levels of your company. Engage your CEO, Chairman, Board members, CMO and strategic members of your PR firm to explore referenceability. Leverage any personal relationships that exist. This shifts conversational impact to a much higher – and more successful - level.

In-person works best – E-mail and phone communication are okay, but if you want to build a relationship with a very strategic customer, do this in-person. Meet them face-to-face and build rapport. Your personal touch will pay dividends down the road.

Think like your customer – The most helpful thing you can do is to get out of your company’s skin and look at the world through your customer’s eyes. Forget about getting them to do anything for you. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Invest the time to understand your customer’s culture, challenges and needs. Drill down to discover what might turn them on.

Start small – One of the biggest faux pas? Going into a customer conversation with a laundry list of requests: quotes for news releases; speaking opportunities; case studies; videos; podcasts, etc. Don’t do this. Instead, engage in a thoughtful discussion and discover what appeals to them the most. Then work hard to make it a success in the customer’s eyes. Once you establish credibility via results, you can hopefully move onto a second activity.

Find the maverick – Some people are out to make a name for themselves and build their career. Being interviewed, quoted and featured in high profile opportunities appeals to these individuals. They are risk takers, have power within their organizations and agree to take responsibility for their own actions.

Work with corporate PR – Instead of avoiding a customer’s Corporate PR department (or hoping they won’t discover your plot to get their maverick quoted), get them involved from the get-go. Engage in a thoughtful conversation and remember the principles previously discussed. Try to uncover one particular activity that might be green-lighted by Corporate PR.

Move PR up the food chain – While it’s critical to have customer references to close sales deals, it’s also important to have them validate your company with bloggers, important media and analysts. Lobby persuasively to move PR up the critical list.

Bake referenceability into contracts – Work with your sales and legal departments to create custom testimonial language for new customer contracts. Be willing to give something back to your customer in exchange for their involvement. Remember to craft language that is as specific as possible, e.g. “agree to be a reference” is not as effective as “agree to participate with one new customer win news release and one media exclusive.”

Small and involved beats big and uninvolved – Any customer reference is better than zero customer references. While a brand name is nearly always preferable, your communications program may still be well served by a smaller company eager for visibility.

Create incentives for customers – Some customers need a trigger event to get them involved. While their immediate reaction may be to shut the door on any idea, you might be able to gain traction by dangling a meaningful carrot. Instead of saying “would you give us a quote for our news release?” (myopic and self-serving) you say “If I could orchestrate an exclusive interview for you with this blogger or reporter, would you be interested?

Build Best Practices programs – Create a “pull” program by organizing a contest for your customers that rewards outstanding product usage and innovative applications. Best Practices programs are very effective because they offer public recognition and prizes that appeal to a customer’s ego, pride and perceived leadership.

Create incentives for your sales force and channels – Let’s face it, sales professionals care about one thing (as they should): closing deals. Getting customers to play ball as a PR reference isn’t high on their list. Get them involved by developing an appealing ‘bounty program’ that gives sales/channels a reason to invest their limited time. Cash rewards are a good place to start.

Talk trends and issues when road-blocked - If a customer is interested in media interviews but can’t overtly plug your company’s product or service then explore trends, issues and thought leadership topics instead. For example if they can’t endorse your security software product outright, they may be interested in discussing current issues revolving around security. This approach builds trust and rapport over time and may eventually open the door.

Leverage prospects – If you don’t have any customers, or don’t have customers who can be references, cultivate prospects instead. Ponder the prospects your company met over the past year and identify those who were highly supportive of your product/service capability and “got it.” If you tee-up a media opportunity that gives them and their company positive visibility, this will nurture the relationship.

Strategy (IV): a new definition

What, then, is strategy? In light of these various observations and insights, a pragmatic characterization is as follows:

Strategy is fundamentally about identifying or creating asymmetric advantages that can be exploited to help achieve one's ultimate objectives despite resource and other constraints, most importantly the opposing efforts of adversaries or competitors and the inherent unpredictability of strategic outcomes.

This is not, of course, the usual definition of strategy. However, it has the considerable merit of applying as readily to chess or a business firm competing against other firms for profits and market share as it does to military competition during peacetime or war. More importantly, it goes beyond the traditional definitions of military strategy by indicating how one actually goes about doing strategy. At its core, strategy is about finding asymmetries in competitive situations that can be exploited to one's advantage.

Strategy (Vth and last): The importance of surfacing differences

The essence of strategy, of course, is making hard choices -- figuring out what is essential and what is merely important, one the key distinctions that General Eisenhower made in planning the implementation of grand strategy in World War II.

Krepinevich and Watts make the important point that in order to do so, it is necessary to have some pretty tough arguments. Under President Eisenhower, they note, the members of the NSC's "Planning Board" "sought to deal with disputes among their principals by emphasizing differences and conflicts rather than by sweeping them under the rug."

So, I think, one of the key measures of a strategic process is this: Does it identify and explore these disputes? On the Iraq war, I think the Bush administration sought to downplay differences (for example, the running feud between the CPA and the U.S. military) and so expensively and sadly wasted three or four years of blood, treasure and power.

Krepinevich and Watts suggest re-establishing the NSC's Planning Board, an idea I think should be explored.

It strikes me that Eisenhower is getting a lot of good press nowadays, coming to be seen as perhaps our only strategically minded president of the last 50 years. In my recent travels (I've moved from subways to airplanes) I've begun reading Dear General: Eisenhower's Wartime Letters to Marshall. In the introduction, Joseph Hobbs, the editor the volume, notes that in 1962, a poll of historians rated Eisenhower "near the bottom third of American presidents." His reputation certainly has risen through the decades.

Hey, maybe I'm becoming an Eisenhower Republican -- just as the last of them are becoming scarcer than right whales as they are marginalized by the out-of-power and out-for-blood radicalized GOP. One of Ike's most scathing terms of criticism was "hysterical."

Bin Laden's Return to Form

This morning an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden appeared, directly addressing the American people. It appears to be vintage bin Laden, a major improvement over recent al-Qaeda communications and potentially a signal of a new stage in its strategic efforts. Bin Laden focuses almost exclusively on political issues of concern to ordinary Muslims and Arabs -- especially the Palestinian issue and to a lesser extent Afghanistan -- and abstains from ideological discussion or salafi-jihadist jargon. It deserves attention in ways which many recent al-Qaeda communications have not.

Getting a copy proved surprisingly frustrating. So many of the major jihadist forums are now down that it has become a challenge to find these videos even when they are well-advertised. And oddly, while SITE had it immediately, the most important jihadist forum al-Ekhlaas, which mysteriously reappeared the other day after a long absence, did not even have the link as of this morning. When I did find it on one of the remaining forums and tried to download it, a large number of the links were already closed down, and then four different versions which I managed to download failed to launch. I mention all of this not just to complain (okay, maybe a little), but to point out the growing problems that al-Qaeda really does have with its distribution mechanisms.

The video itself is not really a video -- it is an 11 minute audio over a static background. That's par for the course for bin Laden. The voice more or less sounds like the bin Laden I've heard on other tapes, but I'm no expert on authentication. By far the most important technical point about the tape is this: no English-language subtitles were offered on the video version. Al-Sahab productions very often provide such subtitles. For them to be absent in a video ostensibly produced as a direct message to the American people is frankly quite odd. Does it suggest degraded capabilities? Poor judgement? I really don't know, but it's worth noting.

The speech itself represents a vintage bin Laden appeal to the mainstream Muslim world, with a heavy focus on Israel and the suffering of the Palestinians and very little reference to salafi-jihadist ideology. This is important, because one of the reasons for al-Qaeda's recent decline has been its general exposure -- or branding, if you prefer -- as an extreme salafi-jihadist movement rather than as an avatar of Muslim resistance. It has lost ground from the brutality and ideological extremism of its chosen representatives in Iraq, because of nationalist outrage over its 'near enemy' attacks in a variety of Arab and Muslim countries, and because of the battles it has chosen with far more popular Islamist movements such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. But this does not mean that it can not learn from its mistakes.

This tape seemingly represents an effort by bin Laden to recapture the mantle of a generalized resistance to the West and to Israel and to downplay the salafi-jihadist tropes so beloved of the jihadist forums. Where the ideologues of the forums eviscerate Hamas, bin Laden speaks in general terms about Palestine. Where the forums obsess over fine points of salafi-jihadist doctrine, bin Laden speaks only about political conflicts in Palestine and Afghanistan. American strategic communications efforts towards the end of the Bush administration and into the Obama administration had considerable success in hurting al-Qaeda's image by making it a debate about them, not about us. It appears that al-Qaeda Central has absorbed this lesson and is attempting to turn the tables and it make it once more about America and Israel.

Bin Laden's heavy focus on Israel is not new, despite the frequent attempts to argue the opposite. He has frequently referred to Israel and the Palestinians since the mid-1990s. Whether he "really" cares about it is besides the point -- he understands, and has always understood, that it is the most potent unifying symbol and rallying point for mainsteam Arab and Muslim audiences. Al-Qaeda and the salafi-jihadists in general hurt themselves quite badly over the last few years with rhetorical attacks on Hamas and with the emergence of the Jund Ansar Allah group in Gaza. Tellingly, bin Laden says nothing of either of these and sticks to generalities about Palestinian suffering and Israeli perfidy.

Bin Laden also quite interestingly forgoes talk of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and seems more keen to try to exploit internal American divides. His focus on the "Israel lobby" and his call to "liberate" Washington D.C. from the various lobbies and corporations allegedly controlling it is a far cry from a monolothic model of an irredemiably hostile and unified West crusading against Islam.

It's worth noting that bin Laden mentions John Mearsheimer and my Foreign Policy colleague Steve Walt by name as recommended reading. Some of Walt and Mearsheimer's enemies will probably try to use this "endorsement" to discredit them. This would be stupid. Walt and Mearsheimer are no more responsible for how bin Laden uses their words than is Dick Cheney. It should be obvious that Americans shouldn't avoid having a debate about Israel or about Afghan policy just because bin Laden says we should. Shouldn't it?

Towards the end of the tape, bin Laden lays out al-Qaeda's strategy in the weary, patient voice he has often used when saying similar things (compare this to his 2004 tape boasting that he could lead the U.S. by the nose, forcing it to waste millions of dollars simply by waving an al-Qaeda banner in some obscure locale). His presentation of this strategy as a war of attrition is worth quoting (relying on an unofficial translation sent by a twitter-pal):

"Once again, if you stop the war [in Afghanistan], then that is fine. If you choose not to stop the war, then we have no other option but to continue the war of attrition against you on all possible axes, just as we did with the Soviet Union for 10 years until it disintegrated, with the grace of God. Continue the war for as long as you wish. You are fighting a desperate, losing war that is in favor of others. There seems to be no end in sight for this war.

"Russian generals, who learned lessons from the battles in Afghanistan, had anticipated the result of the war before its start, but you do not like those who give you advice. This is a losing war, God willing, as it is funded by money that is borrowed based on exorbitant usury and is fought by soldiers whose morale is down and who commit suicide on a daily basis to escape from this war.

"This war was prescribed to you by two doctors, Cheney and Bush, as a cure for the 11 September events. However, the bitterness and losses caused by this war are worse than the bitterness of the events themselves. The accumulated debts incurred as a result of this war have almost done away with the US economy as a whole. It has been said that disease could be less evil than some medicines.

That this parallels our own internal debate goes without saying. That bin Laden is saying such things should not be a factor one way or another -- the U.S. should figure out the appropriate strategy on its own, not take its lead from al-Qaeda. Does that really need to be said out loud?

Overall, this tape struck me as something significant. Al-Qaeda has been on the retreat for some time. Its response thus far to the Obama administration has been confused and distorted. Ayman al-Zawahiri has floundered with several clumsy efforts to challenge Obama's credibility or to mock his outreach. But bin Laden's intervention here seems far more skillful and likely to resonate with mainstream Arab publics. It suggests that he at least has learned from the organization's recent struggles and is getting back to the basics in AQ Central's "mainstream Muslim" strategy of highlighting political grievances rather than ideological purity and putting the spotlight back on unpopular American policies. Several recent commentaries by leading Arab analysts - including today's column by the influential al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abd al-Bari Atwan [UPDATE: translation of column here]-- suggest that this may be paying off. American strategic communications efforts will need to up their game too.