Has America Reported for Duty in the Resource Wars?

By Daniel McGroarty

March has been a big month in the Resource Wars - the long-term scramble by the world's major powers to secure access to strategic metals and minerals essential to economic growth and national security. Exhibit A: The announcement that the U.S., European Union and Japan are initiating a World Trade Organization (WTO) action against China for its restrictive export policies on a range of technologically-critical metals know as Rare Earths.

But for all the ink it received, the WTO Rare Earths case may just be the second most important action the White House has taken this month on the strategic resource issue.

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While the WTO action got the full Rose Garden rollout, including a podium-thumping tough-on-China presidential speech, a second Presidential action - Executive Order 13603 - arrived in minor-key mode, posted on the White House website late on a Friday afternoon, three days after the Rose Garden Rare Earths salvo.

Not that the Executive Order on "National Defense Resources Preparedness" went unnoticed by all. A certain segment of the blogosphere went straight to Def Con 1, hyperventilating that President Obama had just put in place the rationale for declaring martial law.

But as the saying goes, when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not unicorns. Sometimes an Executive Order on National Defense Resource Preparedness is just that. What's notable about the new Obama EO is the degree to which it assumes that a range of natural resources are critical to our advanced weapons systems, and therefore our defense readiness. See, for instance, Section 306:

Strategic and Critical Materials. The Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Interior in consultation with the Secretary of Defense as the National Defense Stockpile Manager, are each delegated the authority of the President ... to encourage the exploration, development, and mining of strategic and critical materials and other materials.

If the section sounds more like Reagan Era rhetoric than the language of the current Commander-in-Chief, it's because the final phrase is lifted nearly verbatim from Ronald Reagan's 1988 Executive Order on the Assignment of Emergency Preparedness Responsibilities. As for the Obama EO's reference to the National Defense Stockpile - since 1939 the repository of a cache of a score or two of strategic metals and minerals, but since the end of the Cold War a piggy-bank for funding Congressional pet causes - George W. Bush at his most hawkish never suggested it might be time to re-stock the Defense Stockpile.

In fact, this sort of continuity is not the exception, but the rule: The new Obama order references and reinforces Reagan's EO 12472 on National Security and Emergency Preparedness Telecommunications Functions, keeping in place two post-9/11 amendments by none other than George W. Bush.

How to account for the lack of fanfare in the Friday-afternoon posting, and a subsequent press-room brush-off by White House Spokesman Jay Carney the following Monday? Perhaps Spokesman Carney didn't want to fan the Iran war flames when some suggested Tehran as the proximate cause for a Preparedness EO - or maybe he simply lacked the appetite in this election year to defend an Obama administration Executive Order affirmatively expressing its continuity with prior Reagan and Bush blueprints for national preparedness. In fact, it may be that there is no advantage to be gained by calling public attention to this EO, save for the primal fact that it now exists - a sign for friend and foe that the U.S. at long last is taking resource security seriously.

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Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

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