IN THE movies it was the United States Cavalry that swooped in to save the day just when all seemed lost; in the Indian Ocean this week it has been the US Navy’s turn to come to the rescue.
A week after Washington was implicitly accused of not doing enough to help the victims and survivors of the tsunami, the Navy and the Marine Corps were leading an aid effort no other country could put together so quickly. This "soft power" stood in marked contrast to the "hard power" Muslims in the region more often associate with the United States.
Although the United Nations’ Jan Egeland did not specifically accuse the United States of being "stingy", merely noting that western nations could and should be doing more, his remarks were taken as a criticism of the United States in particular.
A prickly President Bush said Egeland was "misguided and ill-informed", while Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States had "nothing to be embarrassed about" in its response.
By the end of the week the reasons for Powell’s confidence had become clear. Pictures of the US Navy leading the way in delivering aid to those who need it most flashed across television screens around the world. If the administration’s response had seemed lethargic in Washington, in the Indian Ocean it was proving vital.
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told an Indianapolis radio station that he had been "stunned by the comments by the person from the United Nations. They reflected, of course, a total lack of information or accuracy or a total lack of judgment or else a bias."
Rumsfeld noted that the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln and its support ships had been despatched to the disaster zone and that there were 17 US Navy ships and more than 90 helicopters contributing to the aid effort while no fewer than 28 cargo planes were ferrying supplies into the region.
Even Egeland admitted that the American helicopters were "worth their weight in gold" and that "The US could not have been more proactive or more active,", while a grateful Indonesian government thanked the American troops and their political leaders for their help.
So much aid has poured in to Indonesia, in fact, that one of the biggest problems the American marines now face is moving supplies from airport stockpiles to the areas devastated by the tsunami. At Medah airport, for example, more than 260 planes arrive each day, bringing in more supplies than can be lifted by the small US Navy helicopters that ferry the aid to remote villages.
But every bit helps. It was notable that there were no demonstrations against the presence of American troops on Indonesian soil; a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable a month ago in a country where, polls suggest, just 15% of the population have a favourable view of Washington.
"That’s a surprise really," a spokesman for Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono admitted.
However distasteful it might seem to some amidst so much human misery, politics is never far away. "Overwhelmingly the motivation behind the aid is humanitarian, but there are other agendas that both the United States and Australia have, one of which is to improve the image of both countries," said Sidney Jones, south-east Asia’s director of the influential International Crisis Group. For the people of Aceh, Jones said, it must seem as if "all there is is Chinooks and the US coming in to help, and there’s going to be real and long-lasting gratitude there".
Powell admitted as much when he told reporters that the American aid effort "does give the Muslim world, the rest of the world, an opportunity to see American generosity, American values, in action."
"I don’t think we should measure this by, ‘OK, the Muslim countries are going to like us now’," said Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. "We should measure this by what’s the right thing to do. And the right thing for us to do is to help those in great need."
Even so, as Brownback’s Democrat colleague John Corzine, from New Jersey, admitted: "We need to respond first and foremost for humanitarian reasons, but also for strategic reasons."
The United States has been urging the Indonesian government to do more to crack down on the activities of Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group affiliated to al-Qaeda that was responsible for the Bali bombing in 2002.
The idea that American boots on the ground engaged in a humanitarian mission might draw the sting of anti-American populists across the Muslim world may seem far-fetched but there was no escaping the reality that some political good for the United States might arise from the tsunami.
Bush himself seemed to view with distaste the idea that there could be a political benefit from the US mission, grimacing when the notion was put to him.
In Indonesia too, Wimar Witoelar, a former presidential adviser, warned that Washington should not think that the aid effort demands a quid pro quo. "Action speaks louder than words and also anything given loses value when something is asked in return, whether attitudes or reaction."
For the people of Aceh, however, the sight of American helicopters delivering vital supplies was more relevant than any geopolitical considerations. "I am touched at how generous they are, helping us without any thoughts," said Sofyan Ahmad, a pedicab driver in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.
$350m government aid so far - a figure that may yet rise.
13,000 troops in the region and 17 US Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and the helicopter carrier Bonhomme Richard.
More than 90 aircraft are also involved in the operation and a hospital ship is en route to the region. Each Navy Seahawk helicopter can deliver 1,000lb of aid per trip.
A US Marines pre-positioning ship squadron is also on its way to the region, bringing 90,000 gallons of fresh water and fresh-water making facilities.
Major pledges from celebrities and businesses include:
President Bush: $10,000
Actress Sandra Bullock, above: $1m
Leading basketball players donating $1,000 for every point they scored last week.
General Electric, American Express, General Motors, Xerox, Bristol-Myers Squibb: $1m each
The public has contributed millions of dollars so far, much of that money going to the American Red Cross, which has raised $150m itself. A Gallup poll reported that 45% of Americans say they have contributed to the effort.