Former defense secretary Leon Panetta. (Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Aspiring Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, scheduled a big Washington speech for Monday to condemn President Obama’s defense policy. But an unexpected competitor beat him to the punch.

Leon Panetta, in an interview with USA Today’s Susan Page published just before Jindal’s speech, criticized Obama in harsh terms that would have been dismissed as partisan sniping — if Panetta weren’t a Democrat who had served as Obama’s CIA director and secretary of defense.

Panetta criticized his former boss for having “lost his way” — allowing the power vacuum in Iraq that created the Islamic State, rejecting Panetta’s and Hillary Clinton’s advice to arm the Syrian rebels and failing to enforce his own “red line” barring Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

The interview was timed with this week’s launch of Panetta’s book, in which he wrote that Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.” Panetta also wrote of Obama’s “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause” and his tendency to rely “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”

So when Jindal arrived at the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Monday morning, all he really had to do to blame Obama for the world’s woes was to quote Panetta.

“How did we get to this point?” Jindal asked. “Just ask the people who can be honest about what happened. Ask former defense secretary Leon Panetta.”

In a news conference following the speech, I asked Jindal to elaborate. Panetta “is now the latest in a series of officials who have served in this administration coming out and saying from the inside they saw some of the dangerous mistakes this president has made,” the governor said. “Secretary Panetta and others are echoing what is obvious from the outside, but it’s more powerful when it’s coming from people on the inside.”

George W. Bush got criticism from former advisers (Paul O’Neill, John DiIulio), as did Bill Clinton (George Stephanopoulos, Dick Morris), but this level of disloyalty is stunning, even though it is softened with praise for Obama’s intellect.

At the start of the year, Robert Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary, wrote a memoir full of criticism of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, saying Obama made military decisions based on political considerations. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who also published a book this year, criticized Obama for rejecting her advice on Syria and mocked the “Don’t do stupid stuff” phrase used by administration officials to describe Obama’s doctrine.

The lack of message discipline is puzzling, because Obama rewards and promotes loyalists. But he’s a cerebral leader, and he may lack the personal attachments that make aides want to charge the hill for him. Also, as MSNBC reporter Alex Seitz-Wald tweeted in response to a question I posed, Panetta, Gates and Clinton didn’t owe their careers to Obama. Clinton was a rival, Gates was a Bush holdover, and Panetta is a Democratic eminence grise. Loyalty didn’t trump book sales — or Clinton’s need to distance herself from Obama before a presidential run.

But there’s also David Axelrod, long Obama’s loyal strategist, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Obama made “a mistake” in saying his economic policies will be on the ballot next month. In quibbling with his old boss, Axelrod followed a path well worn by former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who once accused his old boss of “exceedingly passive” action.

Obama’s most loyal mouthpiece at the moment may be Vice President Biden, who in a speech at Harvard last week condemned as “inappropriate” the books by former administration officials. But having Biden speak for you is of dubious value: The vice president’s criticism of Panetta was overshadowed by loose remarks in that same speech that led Biden to apologize to the governments of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Whatever causes Obama’s difficulty inspiring loyalty, his failure is delighting conservatives and Republicans.

After Jindal’s speech referencing Panetta, Dov Zakheim, a former Bush Pentagon official, rose during the question period to add that “Panetta, who’s really a straight shooter, complains that when he argued against the sequester, he had nobody to back him up.” Zakheim also noted that Obama “completely jettisoned” an earlier Pentagon budget proposed by Gates — a topic discussed in the Gates memoir.

Jindal embraced Panetta as if he had just endorsed the Louisianan’s presidential campaign. “I think it took a lot of courage to tell that truth,” he said. “Secretary Panetta was, in coming out publicly criticizing the president, saying he still has two years to reverse the dangers and the dangerous deterioration that’s happened this past six years.”

All Obama needs to do, Jindal said, is listen to “folks like me, folks like Leon Panetta.”

Twitter: @Milbank

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