Obama Doubles Down Against Islamic State

He could use backup.

Photographer: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

Just days after President Barack Obama admitted that he didn't have a "complete strategy" for forging an Iraqi army that can defeat Islamic State, his administration has decided to send in more troops. Now they need to be allowed to do more.

The White House is deploying several hundred more U.S. advisers to train Iraqi troops and tribal Sunni fighters to take back Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, which fell to jihadist forces last month. The goal of such training would be twofold: Improve the Iraqi military, which has twice turned tail in the face of jihadist onslaughts, and motivate Sunni Muslims to fight against their fellow Sunnis of Islamic State.

QuickTake The Third Iraq War

Ramadi, just 70 miles west of Baghdad, isn't strategically vital. But it has symbolic value as the capital of Iraq's Sunni homeland. Retaking it soon would also be a good warm-up for the coming battle to liberate Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. That battle, too, needs to involve Sunni troops, as Mosul is a multiethnic city that could see an entirely Shiite force as an occupying enemy.

Unfortunately, the new U.S. advisers will be limited in their efforts to train Iraqi troops and Sunni fighters for the mission. Like the other 3,000 Americans already working at Iraqi training bases, they will be forbidden from accompanying their charges into battle. Also out of bounds is gathering intelligence for air support. Without such spotters on the ground, airstrikes may have to be called off when friend and foe are fighting at close quarters in urban areas.

These restrictions have been a mistake from the start, one that Iran -- which has also sent advisers to help the Iraqis take on Islamic State -- has not made. Partly as a result, the sectarian Shiite militias that Iran works with have been more effective than the national army in which the U.S. has invested so much time and so many billions. 

At the same time, the U.S. shouldn’t go as far as the Iraqi government wants it to. Iraq has requested that the U.S. supply it with Apache helicopters to conduct close air support, for example. This would be risky. If Iraq ever devolves into full-out civil war -- not impossible to imagine -- the Apaches would give the Baghdad government a lethal advantage over the Sunnis. A better option to consider would be for the U.S. to send its own pilots and ground crews to operate the Apaches.

All such expansions of the U.S.'s role in Iraq could be debated more clearly if Congress and the White House could agree on a new law authorizing the use of force against Islamic State. The latest effort collapsed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when a "bipartisan" revision of the proposal Obama sent to Congress in February found virtually no support from members of either party. Republicans argue the draft's language would unnecessarily constrict the next president, while Democrats say it would give him -- or her -- too much leeway. 

So the Obama administration is acting under the authorizations for the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions of 2001 and 2003. This is not ideal, but the administration is right to do everything it can to ensure the U.S. military has the authority and the resources it needs to help Iraq defeat Islamic State. Otherwise, the next president may not have an Iraqi ally to support. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.