The U.S. military is positioning troops in as many as 17 or 18 locations in the Middle East and North Africa that the Pentagon is “paying particular attention to,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview with Foreign Policy on Friday.
He cautioned, however, against writing off the region's recent steps toward democracy. "[O]ne demonstration of extremists, any more than a Ku Klux Klan demonstration in the United States, is not necessarily reflective of what the rest of the country feels," he said.
The Defense Secretary also dismissed the recent public dispute between President Barack Obama and Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu over whether the allies should identify "red lines" in Iran's nuclear program that would trigger military action.
"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."
A U.S. defense official told the publication on a separate occasion that the Pentagon was considering sending 50 Marines to guard the embassy in Sudan, where protesters breached the American and German embassies on Friday. The country government officially rejected the request Saturday.
The Department of Defense has already announced it is sending 100 Marines to Libya and Yemen.
"We have to be prepared in the event that these demonstrations get out of control," Panetta said.
During the interview, Panetta said he stood by his earlier remarks that al-Qaeda is near “strategic defeat” despite the possibility that radical Islamists were involved in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans Tuesday night.
“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 said. “We always knew that we would have to continue to confront elements of extremism elsewhere as well.”