Isolationism won't work; U.S. needs world's minerals

Sen. John McCain recently chastised the Republican presidential candidates for preaching a gospel of isolationism. But all politicians, as well as the general public, should heed his warnings.

Any political figure who actually believes in this archaic policy is ignorant, disingenuous, duplicitous, or all three. Many people see a danger in our dependence on foreign oil and espouse isolationism and petroleum independence to avoid the risk. But the nation has far more vital concerns that must be addressed.

Besides oil, The United States relies heavily on imports of strategic minerals. Strategic minerals are defined as those that are absolutely essential to maintain our economy and the operation of our military. Currently, the United States must import 100 percent of 20 strategic minerals and metals and over 80 percent of 11 others.

While some of these are familiar, most of these elements are substances that the average citizen, and apparently, elected officials have never heard of.

Let's start with platinum. The use of platinum for jewelry is purely a luxury, but its industrial applications are not. Without platinum, our dependence on oil is really a moot point because it is used as a catalyst in the "cracking" process that converts crude oil into gasoline. It is also the catalyst in "catalytic converters" on cars. And most of our platinum comes from South Africa.

South Africa also supplies us with titanium, manganese and chromium, all essential to the steel industry. Our dependence on this source placed us in an awkward position during the worldwide call to end apartheid in South Africa, because we did not want to risk losing these metals.

Apparently, the United States tolerates human-rights violations around the globe because we do not want to risk endangering our access to strategic minerals.

I have taught several refugees from the Congo and other central African countries who recounted horrific stories of mass rape, abuse, torture and genocide.

Some have asked me why we, or other western countries, are reluctant to intervene. My guess is that we need the coltan, a compound of tantalum, imported from Africa, and we are hesitant to say much for fear of risking an embargo.

Currently, most Americans, and many of our elected officials, are pressing the government to withdraw all our troops from Afghanistan. While this is indeed a worthwhile goal, the United States will need to maintain some presence in that country for a long time. Why? Within the last two years, geologic reports have revealed mineral deposits with estimated values between one and three trillion dollars.

Chief among these are beryllium, used in nuclear reactors, and lithium used in batteries for electric cars and other devices. In fact, Afghanistan is considered the Saudi Arabia of lithium. As we push toward more green technology, the demand will skyrocket.

Afghanistan also is rich in rare earth elements which are essential for new high-tech lasers, magnets and electronics for both commercial and military applications.

Currently, China controls about 95 percent of the world's market of these elements and experts expect that their willingness to export any of them will wane as their fast-developing technology will consume their supply. Without these elements future development of new technology will be seriously imperiled.

While we know that Afghanistan is rich in these strategic minerals, gaining access to them is very problematic owing to the extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure and a stable government.

There are no highways, railroads, mining technologies or any of the other components needed to develop these resources.

Currently, their primary export is the legal and illegal trade in opium and its derivatives — which aggravate our plague of heroin addiction. Some experts believe that developing the strategic wealth of the country will reduce the flow of opium and improve the standard of living, one result of which might be to discourage people from engaging in terrorism.

While the costs of developing these resources are tremendous, can the western powers afford not to develop them?

The sword of technology cuts in many ways. While it improves our lives, it requires that we continue to rely on foreign countries, some of which are well-known abusers of human rights. At the same time, our own reluctance to serve as the world's police force and our limited financial and military resources will force us to ignore the problems of countries which do not have the strategic minerals we need.

These conditions will produce major problems for the United States. Our leaders need to address the issues head on. It is foolish to think we can just take our ball and go home.