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Peace, tolerance starting to break out

I know life is supposed to be full of surprises, but the last few weeks have been ridiculous.

For example, you had the unnerving spectacle of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB thug who runs Russia, rescuing Barack Obama, the former community organizer who runs his mouth, from the trap Obama had laid for himself.

President Obama was, to borrow a phrase, between a rock and a hard place. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, was behaving badly -- killing people, possibly with poison gas, that sort of thing -- and refused to stop.

So Obama, who had warned and warned Assad of dire consequences, decided to lead a charge against the dictator. But when he jumped out of the trenches, raised his sword and said "follow me," nobody followed him.

Not Democrats nor Republicans, not England, Europe or the United Nations, not the American people.

He was out there alone in No Man's Land, except for a funny looking French guy with glasses.

So he said "Maybe I should get Congress's approval on this. That would be a good idea."

But not that good an idea. If Congress rejected him on the issue he would either be forced to attack Syria on his own authority (and his authority isn't what it used to be) or be seen letting a murderous pipsqueak back him down.

Enter Putin to save Obama from disaster by saying: "Gentlemen, gentlemen, can't we all get along?" Russia offered to help negotiate the crisis and both Obama and Assad jumped at the life preserver offered them and negotiations began.

Thus, we didn't get dragged into another no-win war, Putin walked away smelling like a rose, and Obama lived to vacillate another day. What's not to like?

We had hardly recovered from the shock of being introduced to Vlad the Statesman when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani began making peaceful noises to us, suggesting that maybe something could be worked out on the issue of their nuclear program.

Nothing definite was proposed, mind you, but it has been hinted that perhaps Iran would give up its nuclear activities in exchange for an easing of the sanctions that have crippled its economy.

I don't know what if anything will come of it, but it's a lot more encouraging than their Great Satin riff.

And if it eases tensions between the two countries and makes a "nuclear event" less likely, it would be a marvelous achievement.

Do you think it's possible that Obama's maddening rope-a-dope style of diplomacy is actually working? Now that would be a surprise.

But perhaps the greatest surprise of all came from the pope, of all people. In an interview with an Italian Jesuit journal he said the church shouldn't be so obsessed with abortion, contraception and homosexuality.

The church, he said, had "locked itself in small things, in small-minded rules" and shouldn't be so prone to condemn.

He further said he envisioned a greater role for women in the Church and that he wasn't in a position to judge homosexuals who are of good will and in search of God.

Wow. I never, in my lifetime, thought I'd hear a pope talk like that -- you know, like a human being.

Admittedly, he didn't say women should be priests or have the right to choose or that being gay was grand. But simply letting a little light and fresh air into a room that has been sealed tight for centuries was an amazing phenomenon.

Surprise isn't a strong enough word.

Not everything was surprising, though. The Republicans in Congress are back at it, toiling away to save America from an expansion of health care -- leading to a shutdown of government.

Also, a disturbed military contractor took out his anguish at co-workers and other people crossing his path at the Washington Navy Yard, leaving 12 dead before authorities killed him too.

The head of the National Rifle Association said it proved the Navy Yard needed more guns.

Some things never change.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.