There's a certain irony in the fact that the American president who won the office vowing to end the two wars he inherited finds himself after six years as much a wartime president as the man he succeeded.

President George W. Bush seized the role with vigor following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, by going into Afghanistan in pursuit of the perpetrators. Then, before finishing the job, he pivoted to Iraq and started his own war, soon donning his old Air Force pilot's garb to declare, prematurely, "Mission Accomplished."


Mr. Bush left the ensuing messes in both countries to incoming President Barack Obama, who had sought the Oval Office promising to end what he called "a dumb war," and to focus on ending the one in Afghanistan.

Then, in his first year as president, Mr. Obama somewhat astoundingly was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Apparently, he was judged as being of good heart and intent, as both wars went on.

Notably, Mr. Obama in his acceptance speech made the case for the concept of "the just war," in which military action is justified in the face of great injustice and evil. The example most readily in memory is World War II's Nazi and Japanese fascism.

Mr. Obama had come into office vowing to change the way Washington worked, not to change the world. But a new wave of religious terrorism spread ominously in the Middle East, presenting him with no choice but to confront it. Now, with less than two years left in his presidency, his noble objective to get the United States off, as he has put it, "a permanent war footing" seems beyond his reach.

Although he has tried to stick to his earlier plans to withdraw all American combat forces from both counties, military reality has obliged him to fudge on them, continuing training support along with the fuzzy edict of "no boots on the ground."

Far from eroding or eliminating al-Qaida terrorists and assorted affiliates in the Middle East, U.S. policy has been frustrated by a spreading virus, most notably the emergence of the new self-styled Islamic State, which occupies parts of Iraq and Syria.

Obama, rather than ending America's permanent or perpetual war footing, now finds himself committed to "degrading and eventually destroying" this effort to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. U.S. air power has lately been thrown into the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit, home of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, from the control of the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the virus has spread into Yemen, where the U.S.-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has fled and U.S. intelligence reportedly has aided Saudi Arabian air strikes against Shiite Houthis rebels. Also, Egypt has joined an Arab-led effort against Yemen by sending warships off the Yemen coast. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has told other Arab counterparts, according to the Washington Post, that his country is willing to send ground forces into Yemen if necessary. Arab leaders also announced Sunday that they would join forces to battle armed insurgencies in surrounding states.

Such ancillary involvement is largely welcomed by the Obama administration. But American engagement against the Islamic State will remain on Mr. Obama's plate, continuing to divert him from his domestic agenda of breaking the partisan logjam in Washington that has continued throughout his watch. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intrusion into American affairs, speaking before Congress to oppose Obama's efforts to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear weapons development, has roiled U.S.-Israeli relations.

Finally, the continuing adventurism of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine also keeps Mr. Obama tethered to the foreign policy obligations that have taken such demanding chunk of his presidential responsibilities. He has become as much a wartime president as his predecessor was, despite his wish that it were otherwise, and with little prospect that that he can become a peacetime president in the time left to him in the Oval Office.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is