The Afghanistan shuffle

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When Stephen Harper shuffled his cabinet on Tuesday, he fixed a problem with defence minister Gordon O'Connor who had lost his credibility; picked his own main rival Peter MacKay to replace O'Connor in the toughest job in Ottawa; and finalized his strategy for surviving as prime minister in minority parliaments to come.

This is the Afghanistan shuffle. The war is going badly. The Liberals sent Canadian troops under American command to invade the country following September 11. As American troops and resources were diverted to Iraq, NATO picked up some of the slack, but as the New York Times reports the initial military success following the overthrow of the Taliban government has progressively been reversed.

Changing his ministers is not going to affect the fortunes of the war in Afghanistan. The best Harper can hope for is to make a bad situation look better, not worse, as O'Connor did when he misled the House of Commons on treatment of Afghan prisoners arrested by Canadian forces.

By moving Maxime Bernier into Peter MacKay's old job as foreign affairs minister, Harper brings a Francophone voice to defend bad policies at a time when the Quebec Vandoos regiment moves to front-line engagement.

Holding their 10 seats in Quebec, and winning more, is central to Conservative strategy, thus the Bernier appointment is crucial. As well, Josée Verner takes over cultural policy from the unfortunate Bev Oda who managed to alienate key cultural leaders in both Quebec and Ontario as minister of heritage.

As minister of defence, Peter MacKay has more room to play a political role in the Atlantic region than he did as foreign affairs minister, at a time when the Conservatives trail the Liberals in public support in the region, because of broken Conservative promises on equalization payments under the Atlantic Accord.

Conservatives cannot hand Atlantic Canada to the Liberals if they expect to survive as a government. Though Newfoundland may be a lost cause for the Conservatives, military spending helps consolidate support in the Maritimes.

Peter MacKay can hardly turn the war in Afghanistan into a wedge issue for the Conservatives, using support for the troops to separate Liberal and New Democrat voters from their favourite parties; in fact, something close to the reverse is more likely. As the war situation worsens, MacKay and Bernier will be asked to reveal a softer Afghanistan policy, agreeing to withdraw troops from a combat role by 2009, for instance, in order to take the issue away from the opposition parties before the next election, which could be coming after the 2008 spring budget.

Cabinet shuffling gives Stephen Harper the chance to play strategist. His first task is survival of the party in government, his second is holding onto his own position. Without the first, the second becomes problematic.

While Harper dreams of a Conservative majority, it will require the virtual destruction of the Liberal Party. No doubt he plans to do his part to achieve those ends, and Liberal Party in-fighting over the leadership of Stéphane Dion helps him along, but professional reading of the polls suggests the reachable objective is more seats than the Liberals, so as to hold onto power. To succeed, Harper needs to hold on to what he has already. In case he fails, in-fighting over his own leadership will erupt inside the Conservative caucus, where Harper is feared, somewhat admired, but not liked.

Just in case leadership trouble brews, Harper has handed the hottest political potato to his main rival for the leadership of the party, Peter MacKay. If the Afghanistan situation worsens, as is likely, MacKay gets burned and the major potential threat to Harper, if he becomes former prime minister Harper, is diminished.

Harper has named Bernier, the obvious Quebec contender to the Conservative leadership, to foreign affairs. Western star, and the third potential leader, Jim Prentice moves to industry where he can network with the players in central Canada.

The cabinet switches rid Harper of a problem minister, and puts a rival on the spot. But, the Afghanistan shuffle will only work politically for Harper, and his party, if the intention is to end the military combat role for Canada in Kandahar province.

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