Oct. 22, 2006 — -- 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is in the middle of a civil war and said he could not imagine any circumstances under which all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from that country before the end of his presidency.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.
"I think this is a good idea, to get outside people to come in and take a look," the president said.
But he also asserted that his team of military commanders has changed tactics in Iraq when necessary.
"They're constantly changing tactics, constantly changing tactics," he said. "If it's not working, our commanders change it. And there's progress being made on the political front. There is some progress being made on the security front in terms of getting more Iraqi units. Eventually, it's going to be up to Iraq to defend herself. Eventually, it's going to be the decision of the Iraqi people as to whether or not they want a form of government based upon liberty. That's going to be their choice."
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 took particular aim at his opponent in the 2004 presidential election.
"Frankly, I hear disparate voices all over the place from the Democrats' side about Iraq. We got some saying, 'Get out,' " he said. "The person I ran against in 2004, Sen. Kerry, said at a date-certain time, withdraw."
Bush said 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 saying his opponents, including Kerry, were unpatriotic.
"It's not questioning their patriotism. I think it's questioning their judgment," he said.
On the issue of North Korea, Bush 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 [material] -- 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.
Stephanopoulos also asked the president about the scandals that could play a critical role in the 2006 midterms. The president had tough words for both parties, saying, "Any Republican or Democrat who has betrayed the trust disappoints me, just like it disappoints the voters."
Bush said he did not know whether four Republican resignations -- including the latest from Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., amid the release of sexually explicit e-mails first reported by ABC News -- would reduce Republican turnout.
"I don't worry about it," Bush said. "You know, I'm going to try my best to help energize our base by talking about the two issues that I think are the vital issues of the campaign. The fundamental issue facing this country is: Can we protect the American people?"
The second major issue, the president said, is "Who best to keep this economy growing?"
Overall, the president contended, "I've heard all the speculation and all the predictions. And I believe if our candidates stick with security and tell the American people we've got the plan to protect this country against these terrorists who want to hit us, and talk about the economy, we'll do just fine."
Bush said he does not believe the Democrats will take over either the House or the Senate in November.
"I can't tell you what the margins are going to be," he said. "But I believe our candidates will go out and talk about the issues that matter and we'll win."
Domestically, no matter what happens in just a few weeks at the polls, the president said, "Every session, you change the way you do business with Congress. And you test the mood of the Congress, find out what their appetite will be. But it doesn't change your priorities. And my priorities are reauthorization of 'No Child Left Behind.' … My priorities are giving the tools necessary to our professionals to protect this homeland. My priorities would be to support these troops. My priorities would be to reform the entitlement programs. And my priorities are going to be to get a comprehensive immigration bill."
The president added that he would once again attempt Social Security reform despite failure to pass such legislation this year with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.
As the two-term incumbent approaches the final years of his presidency, Stephanopoulos asked about Bush's legacy, to which the president replied, "The true history of my presidency will not be reflected until way after I'm gone."
Bush said he had not read any of the many books written about his administration, asserting there is nothing to be learned from such works in real time.
"It's kind of weird to be reading books about yourself when you're still trying to be the president," Bush told Stephanopoulos, later saying, even of the laudatory books, "I have not read one book about me. I've read a lot of books this year, but not one about myself."
Presently, the president noted, he is reading a "history of the English-speaking peoples from … 1900 on," calling it a "great book".
When asked which personal quality is going to be important for the next president, Bush replied, "Determination and compassion." And when reflecting on what advice he might have for his successor, Bush told ABC News, "Stand on principle."
Stephanopoulos' entire interview with President Bush, viewer questions and an exclusive look behind-the-scenes of the ABC News one-on-one with the president can be viewed at "This Week's" Web page at www.abcnews.com.