06/11/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2014

In Quest of a Strategy

Fiddling While Rome Burns

According to ancient legend, the Roman emperor Nero placidly played his fiddle while the great city burned down. I have the uneasy feeling our leader in the White House is engaging in a similar bout of escapism, playing golf and making fatuous speeches while the world around us is going up in flames.

President Obama has never been comfortable in the role of wartime leader. He has no military background and is much more attuned to the traditional liberal disdain for the Pentagon. He did make a tough military decision to take out Osama Ben Laden but for the most part he seems reluctant to invest much time and attention to national defense issues -- other than to wind down engagement in Afghanistan and announce that the war is over.

I fully understand the president's desire that the war should be over, but he fails to grasp the nature of the conflict we are in. This is not an all-out struggle for survival like World War II or even a "brush war" against guerrillas like Vietnam. We are up against a Hydra-headed monster determined not only to destroy the United States and our way of life, but modern civilization itself. The Islamic world is in turmoil and its leadership is disoriented, lacking any coherent vision of how to deal with fanatics who are eager to blow themselves up for their cause, which can only be described as naked barbarism. Syria is disintegrating and our hard-won "victory" in Iraq is coming apart. The radical groups are splintering into smaller cells that will be even more difficult to identify and defeat. It is Obama's nature as a reasonable man of intelligence to want to negotiate with our opponents but negotiations will not get you very far with suicide bombers. Like it or not, we are engaged in a grim battle that will continue indefinitely.

If there was ever a time when we needed a serious reappraisal of our national defense apparatus and our beleaguered foreign service, it is surely now. The volunteer army was a great concept in terms of defusing draft protests, but it now means the same tiny population of patriots must go back into combat over and over again, year in and year out. Human beings are not designed for this. Our fight in WWII was desperate but from D-Day to Germany's surrender was less than a year. Most of our troops in Vietnam served a year or less and then were done with it. For our volunteer force today, there is no respite.

We must recognize the gravity of the struggle we are in today and come up with a new military strategy to deal with it even as the Pentagon is facing major budget cuts. We must find a way to expand the forces defending our country even if it means some sort of military draft. Such a fundamental change will require visionary leadership and political courage. President Obama has two years left to redeem his foundering presidency. He can do it if he will honestly recognize our plight, share it with the American people and get all of us involved.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.