The Trump administration on Monday nominated Marshall Billingslea, the former Treasury Department antiterrorism official nominally in charge of nuclear arms control negotiations, as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Billingslea, as special presidential envoy for arms control, is already the point person for the White House’s more-or-nothing attempt to secure a trilateral nuclear arms control deal covering the United States, Russia, and China. Such an accord, if the White House has its way, would replace the expiring New START pact between Washington and Moscow.
China has said it will not negotiate such an agreement.
The White House created Billingslea’s current position for him, after the Senate twice failed to confirm his appointment to a different post at the State Department in 2018 and 2019. That gave Billingslea a way into the agency after Democrats began to coalesce against him, citing his involvement, as a Department of Defense staffer in the Geroge W. Bush administration, with the use of interrogation techniques later deemed torture on terrorism detainees at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
If confirmed this time by the Senate — which even during the COVID-19 pandemic is still moving judicial nominees, and this week even holding hearings for a few Pentagon nominees — Billingslea would assume full time the job now performed on an acting basis by Christopher Ford, assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation.
Billingslea last got through the Senate in June 2017, when lawmakers voted 65-35 to confirm him as Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing. That year, 12 Democrats crossed the aisle to join every Senate Republican in voting “aye.”
Since then, Democrats, with Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as de facto spokesperson, have even more strenuously objected to promoting Billingslea.
“Mr. Billinsglea has a troubled history with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Menendez wrote in a statement last month, when the White House installed Billingslea at Foggy Bottom as the arms control envoy. “Following his unsuccessful nomination for the State Department’s top human rights post, serious questions remain concerning whether he was forthright and truthful when testifying before the committee about his role in the detainee torture scandal during the Bush administration.”
The New START nuclear arms control treaty took effect in 2011 and limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons that Washington and Moscow may deploy on a mixture of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), heavy bomber aircraft, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The treaty holds each nation to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, with one bomber counted as a single warhead. Both sides reached that limit in February 2018.
Just about the entire deployed U.S. nuclear arsenal is covered by New START, whereas Russia has large numbers of tactical weapons — relatively smaller-yield nukes that might be used one at a time during a conflict, rather than all at once to instantly destroy an adversary’s capability to wage and recover from war — that are not limited by New START. Ditching the treaty would allow the U.S. to change the day-to-day posture of its nuclear forces a little or a lot.
On the other hand, the treaty also allows each country to allow the other to inspect nuclear weapons sites and delivery vehicles, and requires the signatories to verify that they are abiding by treaty limits. Military and civilian officials prize the stability this aspect of the treaty affords decision makers and planners.