Soldier who shoots from the lip sets sights on politics: Lew MacKenzie's peace-keeping roles have made him a national hero and his criticism of the defence establishment has boosted his appeal to Canadian voters, writes Hugh Winsor in Ottawa

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POLITICAL strategists working for the Liberal Party leader, Jean Chretien, are counting on the much-decorated and much-quoted Canadian peace-keeper General Lew MacKenzie to provide them with some heavy firepower to defeat the Conservatives in the national election that must be held this year.

Although Gen MacKenzie, who has become known as 'the general who shoots from the lip', still has another month before he retires from the Canadian armed forces and becomes officially free to speak his mind, he has already created a political firestorm with a withering attack on the United Nations' ability to organise and support peace-keeping operations.

The speech last week was equally critical of Canadian politicians for accepting new peace-keeping assignments for their international prestige value and then failing to provide the armed forces with adequate manpower and equipment to carry them out safely.

Canada has been involved in 28 different UN-sponsored peace-keeping operations since the Second World War and now has 4,600 troops involved in various missions, compared with Britain's 3,700 troops, but progressive cuts in defence spending have stretched the armed forces to dangerous levels, according to Gen MacKenzie.

The general's outspokenness, far from giving the political strategists pause has enhanced his electoral attractiveness. Senior officials from both the Liberals and the governing Tories had approached Gen MacKenzie about becoming a candidate before he announced a fortnight ago that he would be taking early retirement from the forces (he is 52) to write a book about his peace-keeping experiences and to pursue his public-speaking career.

His role in commanding the UN forces that opened Sarajevo airport and kept it open for relief flights fed into the national psyche to such a point that the annual Canadian press poll of newsmakers ranked his story second only to the constitution in 1992. He tied with the Toronto Blue Jays, the first non-US team to win the baseball World Series. There have been some suggestions that Gen MacKenzie might become Canada's equivalent of Dwight Eisenhower, a military hero who turns his skills to politics and becomes commander in chief.

Gen MacKenzie has admitted he is interested and that he has decided which of the two major national parties best fits his values and concepts. But he will not say what he is going to do until his official retirement on 31 March. Friends say he is leaning towards the Liberals and a candidacy in his home province of Nova Scotia is being kept vacant for him. Apparently he is trying to decide whether to plunge further into politics immediately or to finish his book, accept a job at a policy think- tank in Toronto and prepare for the next election four or five years down the road.

Although he is at present commander of land forces in the central region, he has spent virtually all of the time since he returned from Sarajevo last summer on the speaking circuit or accepting awards and decorations. He has also managed to mix a lot of derring-do with common sense in the six different peace-keeping forces he has served in or commanded. He readily admits he was making up the UN role as he went along in Sarajevo and was quick to seize on the international media as one of his main weapons.

The party strategists wooing Gen MacKenzie are seeking more than the image, however. His political potential is also based on judgement, his ability to make decisions on the spot and to explain what he is doing in an articulate way.

They are also conscious of his potential in the debate on national unity. As he told one Canadian audience during the referendum: 'If I could have one wish, it would be to dump the entire population of Canada in Sarajevo for about six hours, so they could truly appreciate that this is the best country in the world and we are uniquely blessed to be its citizens.'

(Photograph omitted)