WASHINGTON -- Colin Kahl, a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama's campaign, defended Tuesday the president's handling of the Arab Spring over the past two years and argued there was "no substance" to criticisms raised by the Republican Party.
Kahl, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to the end of 2011 and is now a frequent foreign policy spokesman for the Obama campaign, said that the president faced a complicated and still-evolving situation in the Middle East, and had put himself on "the right side of history."
"It's not clear to me what the alternative would have been," Kahl said during the Tuesday morning session of an event at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. "As the Arab Spring emerged in places like Tunisia and Egypt, should the United States have stood on the sidelines? Clearly the Republicans don’t think that because they think we should be 'leading' on these issues, and, of course, that's what the president did, which was to get on the right side of history."
The Arab Spring that toppled dictatorships has resurfaced in an unsettling way in recent weeks, particularly in post-revolutionary countries across North Africa, where several U.S. embassies came under attack by Islamist protesters angry about an obscure anti-Islam film. In Libya, an assault on the consulate in Benghazi left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Those attacks have the potential to affect the presidential race, as voters have shown signs of discomfort with Obama's handling of the crisis. Republicans, including GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have argued that Obama failed to sufficiently promote U.S. values with the leaders of the countries undergoing transition, and that this contributed to the disarray.
"I think this is a time for America to exert leadership, and this is not something that we are doing in the Middle East," Romney said on Monday in an interview with NBC.
Romney has also previously suggested that had Obama more forcefully pushed democratic reform earlier in his administration, the Arab Spring uprisings -- and their subsequent fallout -- might have been avoided altogether.
Kahl dismissed the criticisms as incoherent.
"It would be interesting to ask Mitt Romney whether he thinks we have been too supportive of democracy or not supportive enough, because he basically wants to make the argument that it's both," Kahl said. "At the end of the day, their political argument is, 'Look at this scary place,' and 'If only you had tougher folks like the Republicans in charge, all these fears would go away.' But there's no substance to that argument."
Kahl also cautioned against trying to "draw definitive conclusions" from the recent violence and said that the changes in the Middle East will take time -- decades even -- to fully sort themselves out.
"This is a region that is reconciling a clear desire among the people for more democratic governance with the culture and religion of Islam," he said, adding that he expects moderate voices to win out in the end.
"Once a group moves from the street into the corridors of power, they have to start to moderate their positions both domestically and internationally," Kahl said. "So I think over time it's not the handful of [ultraconservative] Salafists who are throwing Molotov cocktails in the streets that are going to dominate these societies; it's going to be a mix of more moderate Islamist parties with more secular parties that more align to parties that we would see here. It will take a long time because it has always taken a long time."
Watch the video of Kahl's full comments above.