I was surprised to see an unexpected American official show up on al-Jazeera the other day: Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. Kimmitt, the former spokesman for the American military in Iraq and now deputy director for strategy and plans at CENTCOM, went on al-Jazeera to talk about "the future of the American military presence in the region."
Mark Kimmitt and Ahmed Mansour in the al-Jazeera studio, April 5, 2006
Kimmitt didn't just go on al-Jazeera... he did the show No Limits, probably the most hostile environment for an American military official of any of al-Jazeera's programmes. The host, Ahmed Mansour, not only has a well-deserved reputation as one of the toughest interviewers in the Arab media. He is also one of the most broadly anti-American in his political outlook, and - of most direct relevance - was the correspondent on the ground in Fallujah in April 2004 . His reporting from Fallujah infuriated the American military and contributed to the early termination of that campaign. All of which makes Mansour's show a very interesting choice for Kimmitt's appearance.
What makes Kimmitt's appearance noteworthy is what it might mean for American public diplomacy. There's been something of a war going on in the administration between those (like Karen Hughes) who think that American officials should go on al-Jazeera, since that's where the Arab political action and largest audience is; and those (like, broadly speaking, the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President) who see al-Jazeera as the enemy and think American officials should have nothing to do with it. Thanks in large part to Hughes, there has been a really dramatic increase in the number of American officials appearing on al-Jazeera in the last few months. And she's taken a lot of heat from al-Jazeera's critics in the administration for it.
The newly confirmed Defense Department spokesman Dorrance Smith is on record as describing al-Jazeera as actively collaborating with the Iraqi insurgency; I've heard worse from others on that side of the debate. Could Kimmitt's appearance on al-Jazeera signal a breakthrough in that internal struggle, with the Defense Department finally coming around to the Hughes position? I don't know, but inquiring minds want to knkow. I do note that for some reason the transcript doesn't show up on the Defense Department website, even though other transcripts dating later than this one do appear. Is someone trying to conceal his al-Jazeera appearance? From whom?