Has America Reported for Duty in the Resource Wars?

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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.

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.

And not a moment too soon, as Russia asserts its claim to the resource riches of the Arctic, as China locks down metals and minerals supply in Africa, South America and even Canada - all while it subjects its own Rare Earths and other critical metals to export restrictions. Even our allies from Germany to Japan and South Korea are busy brokering resource deals to secure metals critical to their own technology sectors and national defense.

Until now, only the U.S. had been a non-combatant in the Resource Wars.

But with the new Executive Order, we've got a number of interesting dots on the canvas. Start with the U.S. Department of Energy - hotbed of failed green-tech ventures like Solyndra - but also home of sober-minded analysis on critical metals shortages, in its two Critical Material Strategy reports. According to the DoE, five Rare Earths - dysprosium, europium, neodymium, terbium and yttrium - are rated at "critical risk." On the Congressional side, consider the late 2011 creation of the House Rare Earths Caucus to focus on developing Rare Earths deposits located under American soil. And in the few days since the WTO action and the issuance of the National Defense Preparedness EO, add to the small coterie of Congressional metal-heads newcomers from the Democratic side of the aisle, Senator Robert Casey, and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen - strange bedfellows to be sure.

The only outlier is the Pentagon itself, where the long-delayed DoD report on Rare Earths in the defense supply chain - a follow-on to the 2010 GAO Report that found major U.S. weapons systems dependent on Chinese Rare Earths - popped up briefly in a leaked story to the Wall Street Journal the very morning of the Obama EO, only to vanish down the bureaucratic rabbit-hole immediately after. With growing government concern about surety of supply for strategic metals, it's hard to know if the DoD has converted to the Milton Friedman school of free-market economics - or the Alfred E. Newman "What, Me Worry?" school of public policy.

Either way, a range of U.S. Government entities - now including the White House itself - and a growing cadre of Congressional officials are beginning to align across party lines on the issue of resource security.

In a town dominated by partisan posturing, these could be random blips on the policy radar screen. Or they may just be the enduring national security apparatus jolting awake, shaking off the rust and juddering into action.

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