Reporters interviewing US troops in Iraq tend to hear them say the same thing over and over again: “If we could just get things up and running, get something rebuilt, these people wouldn’t hate us so much.”

But the aid money has been very slow in coming. The White House’s own Office of Budget and Management admitted recently that the US has spent less than $400 million out of the $18 billion in Iraq reconstruction funds that Congress approved in an emergency spending bill last year. More than half of that money was supposed to have been spent by now. The Bush administration offered no explanation for the delay, other than to reassure us that contractors are busy working on many projects in Iraq, and that they won’t be paid until those projects are completed.

That’s laughable. Few, if any, contractors would risk working in a cauldron of violence without an allocation of funds, reimbursement of security expenses, an initial outlay for design costs, or a schedule of payments for the completion of various stages of work. The lack of expenditures is either a sign that reconstruction has slowed to a glacial pace because of the security situation (which we should stop calling a “situation” and start calling a “guerrilla war,” which is what it really is), or it’s a sign that the Coalition Provisional Authority has raided Iraqi oil money to pay for these projects. Or perhaps a combination of both.

Notably, the day after the handover of power, when Paul Bremer packed his bags and beat it out of Baghdad after a hasty, 10-minute ceremony, the CPA’s own inspector general issued three scathing reports that criticized the CPA’s financial controls as being virtually nonexistent. For example, there was no system to track how many employees were working for the CPA at any one time-in other words, they had no formal payroll system. In addition, the CPA had failed to coordinate its spending to prevent the duplication of projects. This conjures up the image of Pentagon suits running around with briefcases full of cash, dispensing taxpayer largesse to anyone who asks for it.

Christian Aid, a British nonprofit, was so appalled by the lack of financial controls that it issued a report condemning the CPA for not complying with UN Security Council Resolution 1483, which gave the US control over Iraqi oil money and required an independent audit of how those funds were being spent. The CPA resisted appointing an auditor until April 2004, almost a year after the UN resolution was passed, and only a few weeks before the CPA was to hand over power and dissolve itself. More than $20 billion in Iraqi oil money was spent by the CPA with no documentation provided to any outside agency of where the money went in terms of which companies were paid for work on which projects.

It’s no wonder, then, that other nations have been slow to cough up aid money for Iraq. At the last donor’s conference in Madrid, countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, plus the World Bank and IMF pledged a total of $13 billion in aid and loans for Iraq’s reconstruction. But only $1 billion of that has been deposited in the reconstruction account monitored by the UN and the World Bank, and nearly half of that has come from one donor: Japan.

The CPA’s lack of financial oversight and scandals involving Halliburton are forcing these nations to rethink the wisdom of throwing aid money down a black hole. The global economy isn’t exactly humming along, either; it’s showing as much stagnation as the US’s job-lite recovery. And Iraq isn’t the world’s top priority (although it certainly ranks number one for the Bush administration, who must fix it or soon find themselves out of work). After last week’s global AIDS conference highlighted the 20 million people who have died in the last two decades from history’s worst pandemic, it’s become obvious that the real threat to human security is not terrorism, nor has it ever been. And Saddam Hussein? He can’t compare with a disease-a death sentence, in fact-that’s struck nearly 40 million people worldwide.

The $15 billion that the Bush administration has leveled at the AIDS crisis is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $200 billion the US has spent so far in Iraq. The rest of the world sees the hypocrisy of this, and foreign governments, under pressure from their populations at home, are backing away from supporting the Bush administration’s illegal and unpopular war.

Even among the “coalition of the willing”-that handful of nations who agreed to send a few hundred troops to Iraq-the ranks are thinning. First Spain pulled its troops out, taking Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic with them. Now The Philippines is leaving, followed closely by Thailand, who ignored a personal plea from Secretary General Kofi Annan to extend their stay in Iraq. And Poland, the nation George W. Bush often cites as one of our staunchest allies in Iraq, has said it won’t extend its troop commitment beyond early 2005.

When Gen. Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said that US troops will remain in Iraq for at least another five years, he didn’t give Congress an estimate of what it would cost or where the money would come from. Of course not. That’s not his job. But it seems that no one in the Bush administration has that job. It will cost an estimated $80-$100 billion this year to keep US troops in Iraq at their current levels. ($60 billion or more from the $87 billion package Congress passed last year, plus another $25 billion in “emergency funds” in the current defense bill in Congress, plus whatever funds the Defense Department has skimmed from its other programs.) As the coalition dissolves, US troop numbers will have to increase, especially if the security situation continues to get worse, as it has since the handover, as it has since Saddam was captured last year, and as it has since last August, when it became apparent to Iraqis that the US wasn’t going to rebuild much of anything anytime soon.

$500 billion. That’s enough money to lift all of sub-Saharan Africa out of the nightmare of the AIDS pandemic. It’s enough to develop a vaccine, and more than enough to buy condoms for all the women in Asia–the world’s highest risk population for new HIV infections. Is it worth it to waste that money in Iraq?