Addressing the House Armed Services Committee last week, a leading U.S. general in Iraq let a cat out of the bag — unless Congress and a new administration that is committed to a sane foreign policy chart a radically different course, significant U.S. troops may be in Iraq until at least 2018.

Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who heads the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq, claimed that while the Iraqi government should be able to take over internal security by 2012, it could be 2018 or later before Iraqi forces can defend the country’s external borders.

Dubik’s remarks were echoed by Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, who told a Pentagon news conference Iraqi forces would need support from helicopters and other aircraft, accompanied by an “appropriate number” of ground troops, for “five to 10 years.”

The officers’ position coincided with statements by Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Qadir, who recently held talks in Washington with Bush administration officials about the future U.S.-Iraq military relationship.

Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said late last year they would negotiate agreements on long-term military, diplomatic and economic relations, to be completed by July. Neither the American nor the Iraqi people were consulted.

The generals’ projections exceed even those of the Bush administration. They also raise the specter of this administration, whose Iraq policy is completely discredited, trying to bind its successor to actions most Americans reject.

Democrats say any such agreements must be ratified by Congress, and they project a battle over the issue. This underscores the importance of working hard this fall to elect a stronger Democratic antiwar majority in the House and Senate.

Likewise, Iraq’s Parliament, which has balked before at blindly doing Washington’s bidding, has not been consulted, and a battle is likely there too.

Meanwhile, Nobel prize winner (and former World Bank chief economist) Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard economist Linda Bilmes figure the war has already cost the U.S. over $2 trillion.

With Americans increasingly being thrust into joblessness and homelessness by continuing layoffs and mortgage foreclosures, those funds could put millions to work at good union wages building and repairing our bridges, schools and communities, and providing vital health and social services.