around the world in 80 minutes | 6 may 2013

HEZBOLLAH

THE DRIVER

Mark Perry | Foreign Policy | print

On the night of Feb. 12, 2008, an overweight middle-aged man with a light beard walked from his apartment in the Kfar Sousa district of Damascus to his silver Mitsubishi Pajero, parked in front of his building. It was already 10:15, and he was late for a meeting with Iran’s new ambassador to Syria, who had arrived in the country the night before.

There was good reason for the man’s tardiness: He had just come from a meeting with Ramadan Shallah, the leader of the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and before that had spent several hours talking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The man was Imad Mughniyeh, the world’s most wanted terrorist not named Osama bin Laden. His true identity as the violent mastermind of Hezbollah would have come as a shock to his Damascus neighbors, who thought he was a chauffeur in the employ of the Iranian embassy. A number of them had even called on him, on several occasions, to help tote their bags to waiting taxis. He had happily complied.

On this night, he was in a hurry. He exited his apartment building and walked quickly to his SUV, crossing behind the tailgate to the driver’s side door. He never made it. Instead, a remotely detonated explosive, containing hundreds of deadly, cube-shaped metal shards, ripped his body to shreds, lifting it into the air and depositing his burning torso 15 feet away on the apartment building’s lawn.

Just like that, the most dangerous man you never heard of was dead, his whole career proof that one person really can reshape politics in the Middle East — and far beyond it. “Both bin Laden and Mughniyeh were pathological killers,” 30-year veteran CIA officer Milton Bearden told me. “But there was always a nagging amateurishness about bin Laden — his wildly hyped background, his bogus claims.… Bin Laden cowered and hid. Mughniyeh spent his life giving us the finger.”

. . . Only now, five years after his death, is a clearer narrative of his life coming into focus, one that finally separates the myth from the man. Indeed, though this account relies on dozens of conversations with Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Israeli, and American observers and officials over a period of more than two decades, it’s just in the last two years that those who knew Mughniyeh have begun to provide the details of his life, and only early this year, during a trip to the Middle East, was I told of his final hours.

What I have found is an untold tale about the murderous three-decade shadow war between Iran and the United States, one filled with not only a gruesome body count but also the complicated politics of a region where even Hezbollah’s closest friends could be suspect — and where a shadowy terrorist could wield enough power to shape global events. . . .

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SYRIA

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SLOUCHING TOWARDS DAMASCUS

James Traub | Foreign Policy

Last week, I suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry might turn out to be a diplomat on the order of James Baker or George Schultz. I meant that as a compliment.

But Baker was also the statesman who airily dismissed any effort to stop the Serbian slaughter in Bosnia by saying, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” Baker understood his job as promoting America’s national interests — tout court. Now, as the Obama administration steers its dainty way around the butchery in Syria, which looks more and more like the Balkan war, we need to ask whether Kerry is that Baker brand of realist — and if so, whether we should be grateful that he is.

. . . Nobody had to tell Kerry that the world is complicated and intransigent; he knows that from all those years of closed-door diplomacy. But neither can I imagine Kerry saying, or thinking, “We have no dog in that fight.” He is too morally driven to be that kind of realist. This is, after all, the man who first came to prominence denouncing the Vietnam War in a Senate hearing. Kerry did not absorb from the war Colin Powell’s lesson that the United States should use force only massively and with a certain endgame, or Chuck Hagel’s that we should do less rather than more. Kerry was prepared to see America use force to advance moral goals. He supported the NATO bombing of Bosnia in 1995, and favored a no-fly-zone in Libya before Obama came around to it.

And this is why Syria is a crucible for Kerry. Until now, Obama has made the cold-eyed judgment that America’s national interest is best served by keeping a distance from Syria’s civil war; he designated the regime’s use of chemical weapons as a “game changer” not because it would make the violence intolerable but because it would threaten the region, and thus America’s own interests. Is Kerry equally prepared to view Syria as a dreadful tar baby?

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FREEDOM OF THE PRESS


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THE 10 WORST COUNTRIES FOR JOURNALISTS

Arch Puddington | Foreign Policy

Each year at this time, Freedom House issues a report on the state of global media freedom. The overall findings for 2012 were bleak: Just 14 percent of the world’s population lives in societies that enjoy vibrant coverage of public affairs, a legal environment that undergirds a free press, and freedom from intrusion by the government or other political forces.

The countries profiled below are members of an ignoble club — the 10 most serious violators of press freedom in the world. Most of these countries do have constitutions that pay tribute to the values of freedom of speech and information, but in reality, these protections are often superseded by laws that criminalize press commentary that, according to these regimes, insults the political leadership, breeds “hate,” supports “terrorism,” or threatens national security. The methods employed to enforce a regime of censorship vary from the downright thuggish to more nuanced tactics. The absence of outright violence does not necessarily signify that a country enjoys a freer media landscape than a country where journalists are regularly murdered. Decades of totalitarian control in North Korea and Cuba have rendered serious efforts at independent journalism nonexistent in the first case and rare in the second.

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WORLD | ECONOMY

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GENERATION JOBLESS

The Economist

HELDER PEREIRA is a young man with no work and few prospects: a 21-year-old who failed to graduate from high school and lost his job on a building site four months ago. With his savings about to run out, he has come to his local employment centre in the Paris suburb of Sevran to sign on for benefits and to get help finding something to do. He’ll get the cash. Work is another matter. Youth unemployment in Sevran is over 40%.

A continent away in Athlone, a gritty Cape Town suburb, Nokhona, a young South African mother of two, lacks a “matric” or high-school qualification, and has been out of work since October 2010, when her contract as a cleaner in a coffee shop expired. She hopes for a job as a maid, and has sought help from DreamWorker, a charity that tries to place young jobseekers in work. A counsellor helps Nokhona brush up her interview skills. But the jobless rate among young black South Africans is probably around 55%.

Official figures assembled by the International Labour Organisation say that 75m young people are unemployed, or 6% of all 15- to 24-year-olds. But going by youth inactivity, which includes all those who are neither in work nor education, things look even worse. The OECD, an intergovernmental think-tank, counts 26m young people in the rich world as “NEETS”: not in employment, education or training. A World Bank database compiled from households shows more than 260m young people in developing economies are similarly “inactive”. The Economist calculates that, all told, almost 290m are neither working nor studying: almost a quarter of the planet’s youth.

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EURO

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THE END IS NEAR: ‘CATASTROPHIC’ EURO SHOULD BE ABOLISHED SAYS IT’S ARCHITECT

RT

The same man who called for a united Europe and spearheaded the euro currency in 1999 , Germany’s former finance minister Oskar LaFontaine has formally retracted his support for the troubled currency, and is calling for its abandonment.

Consistently weak data and little upward momentum in recovery has caused severe doubts about the shared financial responsibility that comes along with the continent-wide currency.

The current trajectory of the euro, LaFontaine argues, is ‘leading to disaster’. Lafontaine wrote his remarks on Germany’s Left Party website, and urged the jettisoning of the euro.

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ITALY

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IMMIGRATION, DEBT AND THE SORROWS OF YOUNG ITALY

Christopher Coldwell | The Financial Times

It took two months, several fights, the best thinking of three political parties and a scolding from 87-year-old President Giorgio Napolitano to get Enrico Letta sworn in as Italy’s new prime minister last weekend. Mr Letta’s first few hours on the job made clear why Italy has had such a hard time filling it. He told leaders in Paris, Berlin and Brussels that Italy wanted to maintain fiscal discipline but needed “space for growth”. In other words, Italy needs both austerity and stimulus, more spending and more saving, its cake and the eating of it.

Markets have been receptive and an interest-rate cut by the European Cental Bank has buoyed Italy further, but the country’s problems run deep. Its growth in gross domestic product per capita has been the weakest of all countries in the OECD over the past decade, according to a report released by the Paris-based club of mostly rich nations on Thursday. Italy, in fact, is contracting. Real GDP has fallen every quarter for almost two years. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, announced this week it was keeping a negative outlook on Italy’s debt. Unemployment is at 11 per cent, youth unemployment at 38 per cent. Government debt as a percentage of GDP had been on a slow downward trend between 1996 and the eve of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, but it has now increased to 127 per cent, or about €2tn. Considering that the two decades before the crash saw boom times and the top earning years in the baby boomers’ life cycle, you might say Italy could have come out of the crash better.

That is not necessarily true. Italy’s biggest economic problem often goes unmentioned. It is not just debt but the interaction of debt with the most severe demographic implosion in Europe.

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