Willis Sparks is a senior editor for GZERO Daily. He is also a Director in the Global Macro practice at Eurasia Group, where he has worked since 2005. He has made speeches on international politics on every continent except Antarctica and appears regularly as an analyst on CBS. Willis holds degrees from Brown University, the Juilliard School, Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. He also holds an honorary degree from the Moscow Art Theatre School. A native of Macon, Georgia, Willis has worked as a stuntman at New York's Metropolitan Opera. As a child, he declined an opportunity to spend an afternoon riding the Great American Scream Machine, a rollercoaster, with Ronald McDonald, for money. He has never regretted that decision.
But there is now more talk in Washington of a legislative compromise that Dems would accept and Republicans would cheer in the form of policies that make it tougher for asylum-seekers to enter the US.
Why might the Dems give way? They want more money from Republicans to help Ukraine repel Russia, and concessions on border policy might help. Dems also worry that another border crisis will undermine their 2024 election chances by boosting Republican turnout and diverting attention from other issues – like abortion rights – where Democrats hold a stronger political hand.
What’s the Republican calculation? Winning Dem concessions to tighten the border is a political victory, but an election-year border crisis on Biden’s watch might be more valuable.
We’ll be watching to see how heavyweights in each party play their respective political hands.
Lost in the good news over a two-day extension of the humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza and the promised release of more captured civilians, is an event that could signal the rising risk of a broader Middle East war. On Sunday, a US warship captured five armed Houthi militants attempting to flee an Israeli-linked tanker they had briefly seized off the coast of Yemen. This is just the latest belligerent exchange between US forces and militants aligned with Iran. As in other cases, two missiles fired at the US ship from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen looked more like a fist-shake than a serious attempt to hurt anyone.
But these incidents are likely to escalate as the Qatari-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas ends in the coming days and the fighting intensifies sharply in southern Gaza. There is no evidence that Houthis and other Iranian proxies are following direct orders from Tehran, even if they share Iran’s view of the war. But if militants begin acting more aggressively on their own initiative, the risk of a deadly encounter that escalates the violence beyond Gaza will grow.
Ukraine faces a tough winter, and its Western backers know it. That’s why US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday to signal “unwavering US support” for the country’s defense. It’s also why EU leaders will gather next month to set Ukraine on the long and winding road toward eventual union membership.
Despite recent advances across the Dnipro River and some long-distance hits scored against Russian forces in Crimea and the Black Sea, Ukraine’s much-hyped counteroffensive has done little to persuade American and European backers that Ukraine can win an outright victory against Russian forces. Fatigue is reportedly high as temps drop along the frontlines. President Volodymyr Zelensky is rumored to face internal feuds about what to do next.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Ukraine’s most important arms and money supplier, continued support is under heavy political pressure. Some conservative Republicans, including GOP presidential candidates, have begun to publicly demand an end to all funding for Ukraine. GOP presidential favorite Donald Trump wants to condition military and financial help for Ukraine on any and all evidence the FBI, IRS, and Justice Department have on, as Trump puts it, “the Biden Crime Family’s corrupt business dealings.”
For now, Ukraine has the weapons and money it needs to continue the fight. But Russian forces still occupy about 18% of Ukraine’s territory, and Western fears of a costly, long-term stalemate have Ukraine’s leaders hoping for warmer and brighter days ahead.
After weeks of bare-knuckle bargaining, Pedro Sánchez, leader of Spain’s Socialist Party, has secured a four-seat majority in the country’s 350-seat Parliament to win a second term as prime minister. The process has been exceptionally ugly.
Four months ago, the conservative Popular Party finished with the most votes in multiparty elections, but its leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, failed to find the coalition partners he needed to form a majority government. Sánchez has now succeeded where Feijóo failed by forming an alliance with Catalan nationalist parties conditioned on legislation offering amnesty to hundreds of Catalan separatists who tried and failed in 2017 to lead a process of secession from Spain. This is a choice Sánchez once pledged he would not make.
Sánchez says the amnesty can help heal old wounds. His critics charge that he has committed treason in order to win enough seats to keep his job. The country has been rocked by (sometimes violent) protests in recent weeks. The demonstrations may continue as the amnesty law moves forward.
On the sidelines at Wednesday’s APEC meeting in San Francisco, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping received news that might make US-Chinese relations a little less tense, as Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election campaign just got a lot more interesting.
For months, the current vice president, William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party, has been favored to win on Jan. 13, in part because his two main challengers, Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang Party and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, were expected to split the anti-Lai vote. But on Wednesday, the two opposition parties announced they would form a unity coalition behind a single candidate to defeat Lai and the DPP.
This news sharply increases the odds of an opposition victory, an outcome that would be welcomed as good news in Beijing. China’s government considers Lai a champion of Taiwan’s independence movement, while the opposition favors talks and closer ties with the mainland. For the same reason, an opposition win, still far from a sure thing, would also ease China-US tensions, which have run high as China applies heightened military pressure on the island. Most experts consider a war over Taiwan unlikely over the next year, but near-miss encounters involving US and Chinese naval vessels and aircraft in the Taiwan Straits have raised serious concerns in recent months.
It remains unclear for the moment whether the unity opposition candidate will be Hou or Ko. That will depend on polling over the next few days, and experts say it’ll be a close race. But for now, both candidates appear set to move forward on a joint ticket.
Meanwhile, Lai, who’s polling at 35.2%, remains confident he can still win.
In Riyadh, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) hosted a joint Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, whose leaders on Saturday called for an immediate halt to Israel’s “barbaric” military assault in Gaza — stopping short of imposing political or economic sanctions on Israel.
Why the mixed message? The Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s military response in Gaza have put MBS in a bind. The king-in-waiting’s top priority remains the modernization of his kingdom and its economy. That’s the central purpose of his Vision 2030 project to diversify the Saudi economy away from its longtime dependence on oil exports for growth and revenue.
Before Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Saudi officials were working toward a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel that could help stabilize business relations in the region and boost relations with the United States, a plan MBS hopes might include some form of US security guarantee and material support for a Saudi nuclear energy project.
The war in Gaza brought that bargaining to an abrupt halt. US and European officials want the Saudis to help finance and police a post-Hamas Gaza, but MBS has no interest in assuming those costs and risks. He also considers Hamas an ally of Islamist terrorist groups who threaten the Saudi government.
Some in the Muslim world, meanwhile, want the Saudis to punish Israel and its chief backer, the US, for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza by cutting oil exports that would push prices sharply higher. But major oil customer China, grappling with a serious economic slowdown, won’t be happy if the Saudis send near-term prices soaring. The delicate dance continues.
Right-wing protests against Spain’s governing Socialist Party erupted in violence this week as Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez moved closer to a deal that would provide Catalan separatists with amnesty in exchange for providing him with the backing he needs to form a new coalition government and avoid fresh elections. Rioting in Madrid on Tuesday night injured 29 police officers and 10 demonstrators.
In July, the conservative People’s Party won the most votes in national elections, but party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo fell short in September of attracting enough coalition partners to form a government. Sánchez now appears on the verge of forming a center-left coalition that depends on support from the pro-independence Together for Catalonia and the Catalan Republican Left. In exchange for their support, they’ve demanded amnesty for several hundred Catalan politicians and activists in legal trouble following a failed drive in 2017 for Catalan secession from Spain.
Spain’s right-wing opposition accuses Sánchez of flip-flopping on the question of amnesty, which he once called “unconstitutional,” and blames him for the resulting violence, which looks likely to continue.
Ukraine has elections scheduled for 2024, but President Volodymyr Zelensky doesn’t believe they should take place. “This is a time for defense,” he warned, “a time for battle, upon which the fate of the state and its people depend.” Zelensky also rejected any suggestion that the failure of Kyiv’s five-month-old counteroffensive to score major gains against Russian invaders leaves Ukraine’s war at a stalemate.
With those convictions in mind, it’s easy to see why Zelensky might be upset with recent public comments from his top field commander, General Valery Zaluzhny, who told The Economist that “Just like in the first world war, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate.” Success against Russia, Zaluzhny insists, depends on innovations in what is already state-of-art Western weaponry Ukraine has received or is expecting soon.
Zelensky knows that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has no interest in talks or concessions, and he argues that Ukraine’s American and European backers shouldn’t push him to offer compromises with no hope of Russian reciprocity.Zelensky may also fear that Zaluzhny could become a powerful political rival. The general’s reputation for modesty and frank talk makes him and the military popular– an October Gallup poll of Ukrainians put confidence in the armed forces at 95% – and he’s the man leading the war effort day to day. Zelensky, who also still polls above 80%, would prefer that Ukraine speak with one voice — and, of course, that the voice be his.