How does Richardson respond to aggressive questions about his position? Here's the bulk of the exchange with George Stephanopoulos:
STEPHANOPOULOS: You would pull out American troops more quickly and more completely ... than any of the other Democratic candidates. [Editor's Note: except Rep. Dennis Kucinich]
You say, all troops out by the end of this year, "no residual force whatsoever."
Senator John McCain gave a big speech this week, where he warned that that kind of a pullout would lead to chaos [and] the collapse of the Iraqi government ... is that a price you’re willing to pay?
RICHARDSON: Well I believe that assessment is totally wrong.
Right now, there is a civil war in Iraq. There is continued sectarian violence. I don't believe the situation can get any worse.
What I am proposing is, no residual forces, because I don't believe that they're needed. They're ... going to be continued targets.
I believe in bringing other nations -- Moslem nations, NATO, Iran, Syria, as the Iraq Study Group suggested -- in a new security framework.
...I would withdraw the forces by the end of this year, but I would set up two diplomatic efforts.
One that would ensure a reconciliation of three religious groups [and] a division of power into three entities. And then a security conference that would involve Turkey, Saudi Arabia --
STEPHANOPOULOS: But if that diplomacy fails, you're saying you'd pull out the troops anyway.
RICHARDSON: What I am saying is that you use the leverage of that withdrawal to affect those two very strong diplomatic initiatives.
George, what we're looking at here is not just Iraq. We're looking at the totality of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
You have to use diplomacy, aggressive diplomacy. Then you use other efforts that involve an international support for what we're trying to do...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But why would other nations go in if we are pulling out?
RICHARDSON: ...you would offer them the stability of the region. You would offer them an ability to shape events in terms of reconstruction and security. Everybody in the region wants stability.
And I believe what you need to do is bring all the parties together, and basically say: There's going to be a sharing of power in Iraq. There's going to be a sharing of oil revenue. There's going to be three different sectors.
And then you bring the major security powers -- Moslem nations, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Syria, NATO countries -- into a security framework, to guarantee security and reconstruction for that country.
What is the alternative? The alternative is our policy now, a surge of more troops, at a time when ... we don't have those additional forces --
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, Senator Clinton has a different alternative ... She would leave a residual force next year of about 75,000 or so ... that would be there to fight Al Qaeda in the north, protect the Kurds in the north, deter Iran.
Why isn't that a more responsible course?
RICHARDSON: Because by leaving American troops in Iraq they become targets. They become incentives for more violence.
I would use some of those troops outside of Iraq. I would put some possibly in Bahrain, I would station some in the region. I would put a majority of them in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda and the Taliban are really, right now, resurrecting.
But I would not put them in Iraq. I believe I would leave Marine forces to protect our embassy and other vital American installations.
But the point here is that leaving a residual force is going to invite more violence and make our troops targets.
The last answer in that exchange is the most interesting.
Because the question Richardson will now have to repeatedly deal with is: why would you pull out all troops in Iraq when Al Qaeda in Iraq [a group that did not exist before the occupation -- ed.] is still there?
Few support our troops being mired in Iraq's civil war. But most everyone supports use of the military to go after Al Qaeda.
So Richardson will surely have to address the perception that leaving Iraq completely, without a (ostensibly temporary) counterterrorism force, would leave Al Qaeda unchecked.there.
Stephanopoulos made a passing mention of this when discussing Sen. Clinton's plan, but did not ask it narrowly, and Richardson did not fully address it.
But Richardson seems to suggest he believes Al Qaeda in Iraq simply isn't the big fish, and so, isn't the worth the blowback that an ongoing military presence would generate.
In the end, it's not for LiberalOasis to tease out Richardson's remarks. He will surely be asked about it going forward, and how he handles it will be a big test.
Because successfully answering the question requires upending the assumptions most journalists and most voters have about the significance of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
If he can do it, legitimize the position, and shift the debate, he will have shown he can counterspin the neocons and fundamentally reframe a major foreign policy issue.
That's a task extremely difficult to do single-handedly, but if accomplished, certainly would show presidential leadership.
So LiberalOasis will be watching.