President Bush said in a one-on-one interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that a newspaper column comparing the current fighting in Iraq to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, which was widely seen as the turning point in that war, might be accurate.
Stephanopoulos asked whether the president agreed with the opinion of columnist Tom Friedman, who wrote in The New York Times today 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, before adding, "There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we're heading into an election."
"George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we'd leave," Bush said. "And the leaders of al Qaeda have made that very clear. Look, here's how I view it. 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Bush said he could not imagine any circumstances under which all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq before the end of his presidency.
"You mean every single troop out? No," he told Stephanopoulos.
Bush also had some tough words for Democrats, saying that pulling troops from Iraq would be the equivalent of surrender.
"If we were to leave before the job is done, in my judgment, the al Qaeda would find a safe haven from which to attack. This is exactly what they said," Bush said. The president insisted he was not disparaging his opponents.
"It's not questioning their patriotism. I think it's questioning their judgment," he said.
When asked whether the midterm elections are a referendum on Iraq, the President replied, "I think they're a referendum, from my perspective, which is kind of like your perspective, which is the Washington perspective, based upon: who best to secure this country from further attack and who best to help this economy continue to grow. The truth of the matter is, as you well know, most elections are very local elections. Sometimes those issues are salient, but sometimes there's other issues at the local level as well."
"I'm not on the ballot," Bush said. "This set of elections is much different from a presidential election year."
Stephanopoulos pointed out that 72 Democrats running for the House had used Bush in their campaign ads.
"Are they saying good things?" Bush joked. "Look, maybe that strategy will work; maybe it won't work. I've always found that when a person goes in to vote, they're going to want to know what that person's going to do. What is the plan for a candidate on Iraq? What do they believe?"
Bush said he reads "every casualty."
"The hardest part of the presidency is to meet with families who've lost a loved one," he said.
October is shaping up to be one of the bloodiest months in Iraq since the war began, and the president assessed the situation somberly: "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."
On the issue of North Korea, said bluntly that if the rogue nation sold nuclear missiles to Iran or al Qaeda, "They'd be held to account."
Stephanopoulos noted that after last week's latest nuclear missile test out of North Korea, the president referred to the country as a "grave threat," a phrase Bush has used only once during his six years in office, in reference to Iraq before the U.S. invasion of that country. He asked the president what he means by that phrase now.
"Well, time they find out, George," Bush said. "One of the things that's important for these world leaders to hear is, you know, we will use means necessary to hold them to account.
"If we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer, and we would deal with the ships that were taking the -- or the airplane that was dealing with taking the material to somebody," he said.
"My point is that I want the leader to understand -- the leader of North Korea to understand that he'll be held to account," Bush said. "Just like he's being held to account now for having run a test."
Bush also suggested that China may be more committed to the recent round of U.N. sanctions than it has let on in public statements.
"I'm getting a little different picture from Condi [Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice]," he said. "They don't particularly want to board ships. But, on the other hand, if there's good intelligence, they'll work with us on that intelligence. They're inspecting cargoes coming across their border."
He insisted China was not "half committed" to the sanctions.
Moving away from the controversial issues likely to play a critical role in the 2006 midterms, Stephanopoulos asked the two-term incumbent which personal quality is going to be important for the next president.
"Determination and compassion," Bush said. When asked what advice he might have for his successor, Bush told ABC News, "Stand on principle."
Tune in to "Nightline," "Good Morning America" and "This Week," and check back at www.abcnews.com for more of George Stephanopoulos' one-on-one interview with President Bush.