Current fighting in Iraq compares to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, which was widely seen as the turning point in that war, President Bush said in a one-on-one interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.
Stephanopoulos asked whether the president agreed with the opinion of columnist Tom Friedman, who wrote in The New York Times earlier this week that the situation in Iraq may be equivalent to the Tet offensive in Vietnam almost 40 years ago.
"He could be right," the president said. "There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we're heading into an election."
The president claimed he does not have "any intelligence" that suggests al Qaeda or other terrorist groups may be trying to influence the forthcoming U.S. midterm elections.
"George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we'd leave. And the leaders of al Qaeda have made that very clear. Look, here's how I view it," the president said. "First of all, al Qaeda is still very active in Iraq. They are dangerous. They are lethal. They are trying to not only kill American troops, but they're trying to foment sectarian violence. They believe that if they can create enough chaos, the American people will grow sick and tired of the Iraqi effort and will cause government to withdraw."
Bush reiterated that he does not think Iraq is in the middle of a civil war and said he could not imagine any circumstances under which all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from that country before the end of his presidency.
"You mean every single troop out? No," he told Stephanopoulos. "The fundamental question is: Are we on our way to achieving a goal, which is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself, and govern itself and be an ally in the war on terror in the heart of the Middle East."
The Defense Department has confirmed the death of 78 soldiers this month in Iraq, taking the war's total fatalities to 2,784, and making October one of the bloodiest months in Iraq since the war began.
Bush said he reads "every casualty" and added, "The hardest part of the presidency is to meet with families who've lost a loved one."
Despite the rising death toll, the president said he remained resolute.
"I define success or failure as to whether or not the Iraqis will be able to defend themselves," he said. "I define success or failure as whether the unity government's making difficult, the difficult decisions necessary to unite the country."
The president continued, "The people [of Iraq] voted for a government. And this government is going to have to perform to the will of the people. And that stands in stark contrast to the tyrant that preceded them and to the vision of those who would like to change the governments all throughout the Middle East."
The president assessed the situation somberly.
"Look, I think the guy's been in office for about four months, Maliki. In my judgment, Maliki has got what it takes to lead a unity government," he said. "But what you're seeing is a new form of government actually beginning to evolve after years of tyranny. I'm patient. I'm not patient forever. But I recognize the degree of difficulty of the task, and therefore, say to the American people, ' We won't cut and run.' "
Bush praised the work of former Secretary of State James Baker, who served in part during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and aided the then-Gov. Bush during the 2000 election recount in Florida.