How long will the U.S. be in Iraq? A very long time, according to Bush administration plans, on the order of the 60-plus years we’ve been in Germany and Japan and the 50-plus years in South Korea. In other words, more or less permanently.

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki have signed a “Declaration of Principles” for a long-term relationship. Although it is nonbinding, it lays the groundwork for a formal, binding treaty to be signed next summer that would include a status of forces agreement laying out the conditions under which U.S. troops would remain in Iraq.

The incentive for the Iraqis to conclude that agreement is that the U.S. will support extension of the U.N. mandate for foreign forces in Iraq one “final time,” meaning that Iraq would get back full sovereignty and its legal and international standing at the end of 2008.

Defense secretary Robert Gates has mentioned a permanent U.S. military presence of 40,000 and the Pentagon is seeking $1 billion for permanent improvements to bases and airfields for their use. Already Baghdad is home to the world’s largest and most heavily fortified U.S. embassy.

The declaration pledges both sides to a broad array of economic, political and military cooperation. Two of the principles deserve special notice.

The U.S. would be committed to defend Iraq against “foreign aggression” that violates Iraqi sovereignty, meaning principally Iran , but it could put the U.S. in an awkward spot if American ally Turkey conducts cross-border raids against Kurdish separatists. Given the volatility of the region, a long-term defense pact is hardly an idle commitment.

Secondly, one of the provisions could be read as requiring Iraq to give preferential treatment to American firms investing in Iraq. Considering what we’ve spent there, the Bush administration undoubtedly thinks that’s only fair, but it’s hardly likely to endear us to our allies.

With the treaty in place, the violence continuing to diminish and a functional central government in place, it would become very hard for the next president to undo the singular initiative of the Bush administration. A permanent, land-based military presence in the Mideast could be a positive contribution to regional stability. Or we could just be stuck.