When I was leaving the State Department as the tenure of Secretary Colin L. Powell ran out, his deputy said to me: "Don't ever imagine that you are irreplaceable; when you pull your fist out of the bucket, water rushes in ."
His point was two-fold: Do what you can while you can, then move on — knowing others are ready to take a turn in the wheelhouse. And this: Always and everywhere, power abhors a vacuum. The same can be said of foreign policy. Good leaders are equal to their time. An absence of leadership is met by someone else stepping up.
Today, President Obama has withdrawn America from world leadership. He has consciously reduced our profile on the world stage, allowing others to lead at critical crisis points, from the Middle East — where his peace process is dead — to Africa, where he has left Europe to sort out insurgency, terrorism, drug trafficking and rippling chaos, daring not even to name Boko Haram a terrorist organization. In Iraq and Afghanistan, he has played the "hail fellow well met," wishing beleaguered people well as he turns his back.
Even his laggard lunges at leadership have been awkward. When he has shown a pretense to lead, it has been worse than a kicked fumble. In an effort to induce a renunciation of nuclear ambitions in Iran, he indulged one of the most brutal, extremist theocratic dictatorships in the world, while disparaging Israel. In an effort to aid rebels in Syria, he threatened President Bashar Assad with airstrikes that he then abandoned in deference to Russia. This month, Mr. Assad reportedly used them again.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Obama either mismanaged or did not grasp the significance of securing a "status of forces" agreement, the critical consolidation of gains made with the blood of young Americans. Such an agreement gives civil, secular and ostensibly democratic governments a fighting chance; without it, odds grow long and the question again is asked: Where is American leadership?
Perhaps most enervating is America's silence as a moral leader. Instead of using the bully pulpit to explain history and defend America's historic commitment to natural rights, Mr. Obama is mute. Mute as Russia, China, Venezuela and Turkey violently suppress free speech, press and worship. Mute as Iran and China executed hundreds of political dissidents last year, with both countries setting new records; China up to 778, Iran to 369.
Geopolitically, Mr. Obama appears tone-deaf. Missing all signals of Russian interest in the Crimea 24 months ago when diplomacy might have worked, he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Russian President Vladimir Putin "flexibility." This year, Mr. Obama rushed to condemn the fait accompli in Ukraine, then rushed off to a fundraiser, just as he did after Benghazi.
Bumble or intended disengagement, non-leadership produces predictable outcomes. Mr. Putin carefully prepares for future disruptions in Russian-speaking parts of Europe. Where is Mr. Obama? Where is our leader to frame the discussion around ideals, trumpet America's historic commitments — military and civilian — to individual freedom, democracy, ungagged speech and press, untrammeled worship, open and popular sovereignty? Where are references to American leadership to end fascism in World Wars I and II and communism in the Cold War? Where is the president? A few poorly given speeches are forgivable; silence in the face of evil is not.
How do those intent on undermining America see Mr. Obama? With pleasure and disdain. Russia's and Iran's leaders laugh at his appeasement, empty threats, bobbles and flimflam sanctions. Europe and longtime allies in the Far East and Middle East shake their heads. They ask where the America of Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy has gone.
Where has it gone? Nowhere. We are all right here — about 300 million of us, generations of freedom-lovers and idealists, warriors and thinkers across generations from World War II to Afghanistan, committed to our allies, deterrence and freedom. We are unhappily watching the absence of presidential leadership. We wonder, what next? Will the president learn, or is he so tone-deaf that the whole score is beyond him?
Here is a hint: Mr. Putin was in China this week. As The Wall Street Journal reported, "Moscow and Beijing have found advantages in working together to diminish U.S. influence ." So they have. The time has come for a return of U.S. leadership in foreign policy, for the sake of "we, the 300 million," and for those who share the love of freedom and who know right from wrong. The world's ills will not solve themselves. Global leadership is a responsibility, as is knowing history. No one is irreplaceable, and the power vacuum will be filled by anti-Americanism. It is time for the president to put his fist back in the bucket.
Robert B. Charles is a former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.