In an exclusive interview in his Pentagon office, Panetta also dismissed the week's unusually public debate between U.S. and Israeli leaders over whether the allies should identify "red lines" in Iran's nuclear program that would trigger military action.
"The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country -- leaders of these countries don't have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions," he said. "What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed to be taken in order to deal with that situation. I mean, that's the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner."
Panetta's comments were his first, publicly, since protests first erupted in Cairo and Libya, during which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, two former Navy SEALs, and a State Department worker were killed. The Middle East, Panetta argued, is going through "convulsions" after its momentous change in leadership since the eruption of the Arab awakening early last year, on which al-Qaeda and other extremists are trying capitalize, but they do not necessarily reflect a change in regional security.
A U.S. defense official later told Foreign Policy that the Pentagon was discussing, but had not decided, late Friday whether to send a third platoon of 50 anti-terrorism Marines to protect the embassy in Sudan, to follow the roughly 100 Marines that already have landed in Tripoli and Yemen.
"We have to be prepared in the event that these demonstrations get out of control," Panetta said of the military.
Panetta did not say what he believed was behind the attack on the U.S. representative office in Benghazi, but he claimed the anti-Islam movie was at the heart of other demonstrations. "It's something that's under assessment and under investigation, to determine just exactly what happened here," he said.
Panetta expressed concern that the fall of dictators across the Middle East has left a void for extremist elements to strike from "positions of weakness."
He acknowledged that al-Qaeda had become seemingly more active in places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and across North Africa. But the secretary denied any change from his statement last year that al-Qaeda was nearing "strategic defeat," explaining that he meant the original core elements of the group, not its extensions across the region.
"No, no. Clearly al-Qaeda, the al-Qaeda that attacked the United States of America on 9/11, we have gone after in a big way," he argued, badly damaging their leadership and ability to conduct attacks. "We always knew that we would have to continue to confront elements of extremism elsewhere as well."
Those elements, he claimed, were resorting to desperate tactics because of U.S. pressure and a lack of public support.
"Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan makes use of insider attacks, makes use of IEDs, largely speaks to their inability to regain any of the territory that they've lost," he argued. "They're going to resort to these kinds of tactics, because in many ways I think they have lost their voice in the Middle East."
In any other week, the rift between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration would command larger headlines. Panetta swatted away the scuttle over "red lines," insisting the U.S. would not allow Iran obtain a nuclear weapon and repeating intelligence estimates that Tehran had not yet decided to pursue a weapon despite its continued uranium enrichment.
"Let's just say, when you have friends like Israel you engage in vigorous debates about how you confront these issues, and that's what's going on," he said.
"It sometimes, in democracies, plays out in the public."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages