US Secretary of State Colin Powell's candid comment about the yield from tsunami relief in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, recalls a scene in that cold war classic, The Ugly American, set in a fictional Southeast Asian country called Sarkhan. As stevedores unloaded bags of American rice, a checker stencilled a few words in Sarkhanese on each. Every Sarkhanese read later: 'This rice is a gift from Russia.'
Of course, the US is the world's most generous nation. That is a matter of record. There is no reason, either, to doubt the claim that the US would have helped Indonesians in their distress 'regardless of religion'. But as the Sarkhan incident showed, aid can be counterproductive. Although the novel's deceitful one-upmanship is ruled out now, linking relief with religion could play into the hands of Islamist propagandists waiting for a chance to accuse the US of exploiting suffering.
Most governments still expect some dividend from aid. So, it is natural for Mr Powell to hope that since 'the majority of those nations affected [by the tsunami] were Muslim', US help will impact on terrorism. But the complex game has gone beyond a direct connection between deprivation and militancy. Fanatical organisations like al-Qaeda are not impressed by philanthropy.
Even without al-Qaeda's baleful influence, it would be a miracle if starving and homeless victims of nature's fury who have lost everything, including their nearest and most loved ones, viewed the spectacle of American helicopter pilots helping them as 'an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action'. Their immediate concern is succour.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warns that all the money promised - a record US$2 billion - may not materialise. Iran received less, for instance, than was pledged after the 2003 earthquake. Even funds that are transferred do not always find their way to the needy. Apart from these endemic drawbacks, we have been regaled with an unbecoming war of words.
US Agency for International Aid chief Andrew Natsios fired the first volley by claiming on TV that 'the aid programme in France is not that big', and that the French 'do not tend to be dominant figures in aid'. Stung, the French ambassador in Washington deplored such 'shocking and uncalled-for comments'.
The money is more than welcome. Unfortunately, however, the bickering confirms that international rivalries did not end with the cold war.
Relief is essential in Indonesia and the 11 other stricken countries. A united global effort is even more necessary. But economic help alone may not 'dry up those pools of dissatisfaction that might give rise to terrorist activity'. Mr Powell's successor should bear in mind that a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, disengagement in Iraq, and a less menacing attitude towards Iran and Syria might be more helpful in placating irate Muslims. This is one crisis where it would not be rewarding to tailor humanitarian means to political ends.
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman in India