THE BLOG

The Pope's Runner-Up... the Secretary?

Seen from the perspective of one of the planet's most timeless supranational institutions, Time magazine's selection of Pope Francis as man of the year has a compelling logic -- echoed by similar designations from Vanity Fair Italia and, intriguingly, The Advocate, America's oldest gay-themed magazine.

Certainly this pope has captured the imagination of much of humankind in resetting the moral priorities of the Catholic Church -- more on Matthew 25 and less on Leviticus 18, for instance. And perhaps he will succeed in renewing Christianity's vitality in the modern world, picking up where a previous pontifical pick, John XXIII, left off a half century ago.

Odder, perhaps, were the runners-up for the person who "for better or for worse... has done the most to influence the events of the year," as Time defines its criterion for selection: Ted Cruz, an obstreperous freshman senator from Texas; Edith Windsor, an octogenarian lesbian rights advocate in Greenwich Village; Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian chief whose ferocity in keeping power in Syria has propelled millions of refugees across borders; and Edward Snowden, who has exposed America's Orwellian global surveillance network.

Incomprehensibly, John Kerry was not on Time's short list.

The U.S. secretary of state may not deal with cosmic truths, but by any secular standard Kerry has, in one short year, justifiably laid claim to the blessings the gospels promise to peacemakers. He has re-energized the practice of diplomacy personally and passionately, and pressed for peaceful resolutions to complex confrontations where others may have sought shortcuts through war.

Kerry this year has boldly taken on several of the world's most perilous and intractable conflicts. And in defiance of every London and Las Vegas bookmaker, several of his gambles now appear to have a fair chance of paying off.

The biggest challenge confronting Kerry, and the one arousing the most intense political concern in Washington, has inevitably been the Iranian nuclear program. Obama's first-term administration patiently built international consensus bilaterally and in the United Nations on far-reaching economic sanctions to hogtie the Iranian economy as Tehran's leaders pressed ahead with nuclear enrichment.

The sanctions appear to have gotten the attention of the Iranian public. They gave "moderate" Hassan Rouhani a 51 percent majority in a six-candidate field in the June presidential elections -- compared to a humiliating 11 percent for Saeed Jalili, the reported favorite of supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Rouhani's campaign had tied Iranians' economic hardships to Jalili's "dogmatic approach and 'slogan of resistance'" as lead negotiator in nuclear talks. Rouhani's subsequent choice of the widely admired Javad Zarif as foreign minister signaled to Kerry that Tehran's new team was ready for serious negotiations.

Kerry had no qualms about meeting with Zarif (and alarming conservatives everywhere) when the U.N. General Assembly convened in September, and he took the lead in the "P5 plus 1" negotiating sessions that followed. Despite a few hiccups the negotiations yielded an interim agreement to halt Iranian nuclear progress and guarantee international inspections. Indeed, Kerry's hardest negotiating job has been on Capitol Hill, where hawks have continued to press deal-busting sanctions legislation that would pledge U.S. support for an Israeli air war on Iran -- and shatter the international backing that has made the current sanctions effective.

Less heralded but surely as important has been Kerry's insistence on re-opening negotiations on a final peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, a cause that seems to excite much less interest in Congress than does Iran. January's Israeli elections weakened Netanyahu's hold on power, forcing him to bring centrist elements into his coalition that were far more open to a negotiated peace than the prior majority.

Despite derision in Washington for Kerry's insistence on pressing seemingly doomed negotiations, the secretary cajoled both sides into a new round of talks. His indomitable shuttle diplomacy got the talks started, his personal interventions have kept them alive, and as the talks reach their expected deadlock it is Kerry personally who is intervening with American bridging proposals.

Moreover, pressures are building within Israeli politics for a more forthcoming approach to the negotiations. The opposition Labor party has installed a more forceful leader who demands "brave steps" in the negotiations, while the head of Netanyahu's largest coalition partner, Yair Lapid, is ready to oust the most hardline pro-settler party from the government in order to achieve a peace agreement. Success in the peace talks is far from assured, but Kerry just may be catching a wave.

There is no wave to catch for Syria, where three years of a brutal civil war have taken a disastrous toll on the country's people, infrastructure, and antiquities. Obama declared in mid-2011 that "Assad must go" but has eschewed military intervention as the rebels radicalize, fragment, and lose ground. Kerry has brought a whiff of realism to the stalled diplomacy to end the bloodletting, tacitly acknowledging that Assad will not be ousted by force of arms.

After the use of poison gas by Damascus, Kerry's seemingly offhand suggestion that Assad could only avoid a U.S. punitive strike by surrendering all of Syria's chemical weapons stocks unexpectedly led to their relinquishment. He may have a harder task in getting all the relevant parties to the Syrian peace conference, scheduled at last for January 22. The prospects for an agreement to end the war and elect a successor government seem discouraging, but again Kerry remains personally engaged.

Sure, the war is not over in Afghanistan, there's still no treaty on climate change, central Africa is torn by strife, and China's appetite for uninhabited islets has not abated. But in terms of making a difference in 2013, Kerry should surely have given His Holiness a run for Time's money.