Greg Myre

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in December 2014 when President Obama announced plans to improve U.S. ties with Cuba. We're republishing it with minor updates following Fidel Castro's death.

Just months after he seized power in Cuba, Fidel Castro visited Washington in April 1959 and received a warm welcome. Castro met Vice President Richard Nixon, placed a wreath at the base of both the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and was photographed looking up in seeming admiration of both U.S. presidents.

Since his return to the Russian presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin has been on a tear: He has annexed Crimea, crushed opposition at home and challenged the West at most every turn.

With oil seemingly stable at more than $100 a barrel, the government coffers were full, and Putin received mostly cheers at home and few repercussions abroad for his consistently aggressive approach.

Nazila Fathi covered turbulent events in her native Iran for years as The New York Times correspondent. She learned to navigate the complicated system that tolerates reporting on many topics but can also toss reporters in jail if they step across a line never explicitly defined by the country's Islamic authorities.

Fathi recalls one editor telling her what journalists could do in Iran: "We have the freedom to say whatever we want to say, but we don't know what happens afterwards."

With his coalition government splintering, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sacked two senior Cabinet ministers, said Parliament should be dissolved and called for early elections.

The Israeli media reported that new elections could be held as early as March.

Netanyahu has been prime minister for the past five years — an extremely long tenure in a country marked by fractious politics and unstable coalition governments. He has more than two years left in his current term before new elections are required in 2017.

The Islamic State isn't the first Middle East extremist group to make a gruesome spectacle of kidnapping and killing Westerners. The first wave came in the 1980s, when Hezbollah in Lebanon seized dozens of Westerners amid an anarchic civil war.

As the U.S. military winds down its role in Afghanistan, the U.S. commander there, Gen. John Campbell, says Afghan forces have improved enough to handle the Taliban forces that are still waging war.

The Afghan military is "the strongest institution in Afghanistan," Campbell told NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in an interview broadcast on Veterans Day.

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