Fox obsesses over Obama-Chavez handshake, but ignored Bush's handshake with Uzbekistani president

››› ››› TOM ALLISON, LILY YAN & HANNAH DREIER

Fox News hosts and contributors have criticized President Obama for shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, but a Media Matters search of the Nexis database found no examples in 2002 of Fox News personalities criticizing President Bush's handshake with Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov, whose government the State Department has condemned for human rights abuses.

In recent days, Fox News hosts and contributors have repeatedly criticized President Obama for shaking hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez while smiling during the Summit of the Americas on April 17. For example, on the April 17 edition of On the Record, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich asked of the handshake, "[W]hat signal does it send to other dictators?" adding that "it sends a very sad signal about human rights around the world." But a Media Matters for America search* of the Nexis database found no examples in 2002 of Fox News personalities criticizing President Bush's handshake with Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov, which took place during a White House photo op in March of that year. According to a State Department report issued prior to that photo op, Karimov was "chosen president in a 1991 election that most observers considered neither free nor fair," "was elected to a second term in January 2000 against token opposition with 92.5 percent of the vote under conditions that were neither free nor fair," and his "[g]overnment's human rights record remained very poor." Indeed, according to the report, Uzbekistan's "security forces committed a number of killings of prisoners in custody" and "routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions."

The following photo is posted alongside a May 1, 2005, New York Times article on the Times' website, featuring the caption, "President Bush welcomed President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan to the White House in 2002 to form a partnership to combat terrorism":

According to the State Department's March 4, 2002, report -- released over a week before Bush's March 13, 2002, meeting with Karimov -- under Karimov, "Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights" where police and the National Security Service (NSS) -- identified as "the former KGB" -- "committed a number of killings of prisoners in custody." It further noted, "Although the law prohibits these practices, both police and the NSS routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions, which they then used to incriminate the detainees. Police also used suffocation, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse." The State Department also cited a December 2000 Human Rights Watch report that "claimed that the number of allegations and the brutality of torture were increasing. The most common torture techniques were beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask."

From the State Department's report:

The Government's human rights record remained very poor, and it continued to commit numerous serious abuses. Citizens cannot exercise the right to change their government peacefully; the Government does not permit the existence of opposition parties. Security force mistreatment resulted in the deaths of several citizens in custody. Police and NSS forces tortured, beat, and harassed persons. Prison conditions were poor, and pretrial detention can be prolonged. The security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained persons, on false charges, particularly Muslims suspected of extremist sympathies, frequently planting narcotics, weapons, or banned literature on them. Human rights groups estimated that the number of persons in detention for political or religious reasons and for terrorism, primarily attendees of unofficial mosques and members of Islamist political groups, but also members of the secular opposition and human rights activists, was approximately 7,500.

[...]

There were no confirmed reports of political killings; however, security forces committed a number of killings of prisoners in custody. Although there is specific information available on deaths due to mistreatment in custody, human rights observers and relatives of prisoners claim that the number of such cases throughout the country reached several dozen during the year. Law enforcement officials warned families not to talk about their relatives' deaths. Government officials acknowledge that some inmates died, but attribute the deaths to illness or suicide.

[...]

Although the law prohibits these practices, both police and the NSS routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions, which they then used to incriminate the detainees. Police also used suffocation, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse. Neither the severity nor frequency of torture appeared to have decreased during the year.

In December 2000, Human Rights Watch released a report on torture in the country that detailed dozens of allegations of torture based on interviews with victims and their families. The report claimed that the number of allegations and the brutality of torture were increasing. The most common torture techniques were beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask. There were numerous unverifiable reports of interrogators raping detainees with objects such as bottles, and of threatening to rape both detainees and their family members.

Media Matters' search of the Nexis database found no references on Fox News in 2002 to Bush's handshake with Karimov. By contrast, Fox News personalities have repeatedly reported on and criticized Obama for shaking hands with Chavez:

  • On the April 17 edition of Hannity, host Sean Hannity reported, "Just breaking, moments ago -- and we have a picture. And here it is: Barack Obama shaking hands with Hugo Chavez." He continued: "[I]f we remember what, two years ago, you know, this is the same guy going to the United Nations, calling the United States evil, how President Bush had spoken the day before and the stench and the sulfur smell still stood there -- and I'm thinking, you know, I'm looking at Barack Obama, and there's a lot he obviously doesn't like about this country. He doesn't seem to like our economic system, our superpower status, doesn't seem to like our history, doesn't seem to like our underlying law."
  • On the April 17 edition of On the Record, host Greta Van Susteren stated, "This is a Fox News alert. A handshake -- President Obama and Hugo Chavez shaking hands. Can you believe it?" During the segment, Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich stated of Obama talking to Chavez, "I don't think there's any down side to talking to him, but I think being friends, taking a picture that clearly looks like they're buddies, hurts in all of Latin America." He later added, "I think that's the real danger, is how does that picture get used all across Latin America? And what signal does it send to other dictators? If this is going to be much like Jimmy Carter, a pro-dictator administration, then I think, frankly, it sends a very sad signal about human rights around the world."
  • On the April 19 edition of America's News HQ, host Eric Shawn asked of the encounter, "[I]t's a defeat for Barack Obama if it's a huge win for Hugo Chavez?" Democratic strategist Doug Schoen responded, "[I]t says if you defy America, if you attack American leaders, and if you support policies that hurt our country, you'll get a handshake and an embrace."
  • On the April 20 edition of Fox & Friends, after co-host Steve Doocy stated that Chavez and Obama "did some handshaking and grinning down there," Gingrich characterized the exchange as "a very unhealthy strategy for us." Gingrich continued: "We want America to be strong enough to ignore Chavez and, frankly, shake hands with the Saudi king. I think there's something fundamentally something wrong with weakness in America and then trying to placate dictators." Moments later, Gingrich asserted that "this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter" and that "Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators, when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead."
  • Later on Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade introduced a segment by stating, "Meanwhile, President Obama is taking some heat for his warm reception to some leaders who are flat-out anti-American. So has he lost focus on what our real foreign threats are?" During the segment, Fox News analyst and New York Post columnist retired Col. Ralph Peters claimed that "Obama is already starting to make Jimmy Carter look like a victim of raging testosterone" and went on to say: "What he did by talking to Hugo Chavez and embracing him and fist-bumping and making lovey dovey in the hotel -- God knows what went on behind closed doors. What he did was undercut the forces of democracy in Venezuela."
  • On the April 20 edition of America's Newsroom, co-host Megyn Kelly asserted: "Well, President Obama is raising some eyebrows with his chummy exchanges with Hugo Chavez at a recent Summit of the Americas. Is this just harmless diplomacy, or did the president look weak here?"
  • On the April 20 edition of The Live Desk, after Republican strategist Brad Blakeman noted Obama "shaking his [Chavez's] hands several times before the cameras," he claimed that "Chavez hijacked the entire summit. Whatever good came out of it, the only thing we understand from this summit is him cozying up to a dictator." Host Martha MacCallum replied, "Yeah." MacCallum later noted that "we have seen handshakes between President Bush and Chavez in the past," but nonetheless went on to say to Fox News political analyst Kirsten Powers, "[T]here's a lot of new talk about the Obama doctrine. He's going all around the world, you know, shaking hands with people, in some cases apologizing for U.S. behavior."

As Media Matters noted, conservative media figures -- including those on Fox News -- have extensively criticized Obama's exchange with Chavez as weakness, continuing the trend of the media portraying Democrats as weak on matters of national security and foreign policy.

From the April 17 edition of Fox News' Hannity:

HANNITY: Let me get right to it, here. Just breaking, moments ago -- and we have a picture. And here it is: Barack Obama shaking hands with Hugo Chavez -- if we remember what, two years ago, you know, this is the same guy going to the United Nations, calling the United States evil --

MICHAEL STEELE (Republican National Committee chairman): Yeah.

HANNITY: -- how President Bush had spoken the day before and the stench and the sulfur smell still stood there -- and I'm thinking, you know, I'm looking at Barack Obama, and there's a lot he obviously doesn't like about this country. He doesn't seem to like our economic system, our superpower status, doesn't seem to like our history, doesn't seem to like our underlying law.

What is it -- is there anything that he likes about this country that he's going to say and not meet with Americans -- America's enemies and apologize for this country every day?

STEELE: Sean, that's the question to end the week. And you have to keep in mind that this is the same, you know, dictator of Venezuela who called President Obama, just a few weeks ago, an idiot. So, I mean, I just find that we need to have -- to be a little bit more smart in our foreign policy here in dealing with some of these folks and not elevating them to the level of the president of the United States and giving them credence and giving them justification for their rhetoric and their actions.

So, I think there's still a steep learning curve here that this administration has not figured out on foreign policy. When you go overseas, you do not blame America, you do not call us arrogant.

From the April 17 edition of Fox News' On the Record with Greta Van Susteren:

VAN SUSTEREN: This is a Fox News alert. A handshake -- President Obama and Hugo Chavez shaking hands. Can you believe it? This is the same guy who called President Bush the devil at the United Nations and said that President Obama has the same stench as President Bush. Awkward. Well, at least it was not a high five or a hug, or worse, a bow. The two came face to face at the Summit of the Americas on the island of Trinidad. So, what's up with the handshake? Good move? Bad move? Or just plain awkward?

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich joins us live. Mr. Speaker, good evening. And what do you make of the fact that Hugo Chavez and our president shaking hands?

GINGRICH: Well, the president recently bowed to the Saudi king. He has been friendly to the Iranians despite their 7,300 centrifuges making a nuclear weapon. He basically backed off on his threats to the North Koreans. He has made life easier for the Castro dictatorship in Cuba. Why not embrace or at least be cheerful and friendly with Hugo Chavez?

I think it sends a terrible signal to all of Latin America and a terrible signal about how the new administration regards dictators. But this is an administration which doesn't want us to drill offshore, doesn't want us to find new oil and gas, so we become even more dependent on the Saudis and the Venezuelans. So apparently, being nice to the dictators is the way he intends to get oil. I think we'd better a lot better off drilling offshore in the United States and getting American energy, rather than being nice to dictators.

VAN SUSTEREN: What's the precise downside to -- in your opinion to President Obama talking to Hugo Chavez?

GINGRICH: I don't think there's any down side to talking to him, but I think being friends, taking a picture that clearly looks like they're buddies, hurts in all of Latin America. Chavez has a big propaganda machine. They're going to be putting that picture all over Latin America. Chavez is going to say, "See? I'm the future. Being an anti-American dictator is just fine, and the Americans need the oil so desperately that they will be nice to me no matter what I do."

I think that's the real danger, is how does that picture get used all across Latin America? And what signal does it send to other dictators? If this is going to be much like Jimmy Carter, a pro-dictator administration, then I think, frankly, it sends a very sad signal about human rights around the world.

VAN SUSTEREN: In January, the president said that he wasn't going to be doing any talking with Chavez until Chavez at least had sort of denounced and moved away from supporting the revolutionary people in Colombia. Is that -- does that have any bearing on this whatsoever?

GINGRICH: No. I think that the president's words often don't last very long. Remember, last Sunday, a week ago, he was going to be very tough with the North Koreans. That lasted until a U.N. Security Council meeting, where the Chinese and the Russians refused to support him. Then that disappeared. I don't see any evidence that the president's words in January have any meaning on the president's grin and handshake in April. This is a very shallow administration that follows very shallow policies.

From the April 19 edition of America's News HQ:

SHAWN: Did Chavez set him up? Look, we just showed the video of him giving him that book, that's a rant against America. What's the president supposed to do? Say -- you know, turn his back on him and not accept the book?

SCHOEN: Well, all of this is choreographed in advance. I worked with President Clinton. I've been around 19 heads of state through my consulting practice. These things don't just happen by accident. President Obama clearly made a decision he was going to engage, perhaps even embrace Hugo Chavez. This works to Chavez's advantage, particularly for the reasons you cite. He's cracking down at home; he's limiting the free press and the rights of the opposition. So this is a huge win for Hugo Chavez, and I would argue we didn't get much in return.

SHAWN: Well, it's a defeat for Barack Obama if it's a huge win for Hugo Chavez?

SCHOEN: Well, it certainly isn't a step in the right direction, because it says if you defy America, if you attack American leaders, and if you support policies that hurt our country, you'll get a handshake and an embrace.

SHAWN: You know, I interviewed Chavez at the United Nations. He called former President Bush the mafia, said the White House is like the mafia, rants and raves against the United States all the time. He claims he doesn't hate the U.S., but talk about a media figure. There he is. He just walked right up to us. Do you think this is an act, or is it much more dangerous than that, and how does it threat us -- threaten us?

From the April 20 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

DOOCY: Mr. Speaker, I want to talk to you real briefly about our president and Hugo Chavez. They did some handshaking and grinning down there, and, in fact, Mr. Chavez gave our president this book and sent it to number two on the Amazon list. What did you think about that exchange?

GINGRICH: Well, first of all -- first of all, people should realize it's very important what a president of the United States does. That book was at number 54,000. It's a viciously anti-American diatribe. Now it's at number two. Chavez's people will use that smiling picture all over Latin America to say Chavez's anti-Americanism is acceptable.

The fact is this president is opposed to looking for oil in America but bows to the Saudi king, embraces the Venezuelan dictator -- I think that's a very unhealthy strategy for us. We want America to be strong enough to ignore Chavez and, frankly, shake hands with the Saudi king. I think there's something fundamentally something wrong with weakness in America and then trying to placate dictators.

KILMEADE: What do you say to people who say that this is like Jimmy Carter -- this is similar to what Carter did?

GINGRICH: Well, you know, when we did our movie, Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny, we have a section on Carter and, frankly, this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators, when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead. And the reports out of Pakistan are very alarming about the degree to which the Islamists are gaining ground and the people who favor a modern civilization are losing ground in that very important country.

DOOCY: If only I could have gotten Hugo Chavez to give the president Tales from the Dad Side.

[...]

KILMEADE: Meanwhile, President Obama is taking some heat for his warm reception to some leaders who are flat-out anti-American. So has he lost focus on what our real foreign threats are? Joining us right now Colonel Ralph Peters, Fox News strategic analyst and columnist -- you see a lot of his columns in the New York Post. Colonel, first off, talking with Chavez: good move, bad move -- certainly historic, correct?

PETERS: My president went to Trinidad, and all I got was this lousy Che Guevara T-shirt.

KILMEADE: And a book.

PETERS: I mean, good God -- yeah. I mean, Obama is already starting to make Jimmy Carter look like a victim of raging testosterone. Now, overall, it's not a problem to talk with opponents. You learn things about them -- fine. But it can't be one-sided. Obama said one right thing down south. He said our relations with Latin America need to be based on mutual respect. Well, what part of mutual doesn't he understand?

For instance, you know, he cozied up to every dictator in sight; ignored our friends and allies. But just take Hugo Chavez. Everybody's saying, well, it's great, he talked to Chavez, there'll be a new era. What he did by talking to Hugo Chavez and embracing him and fist-bumping and making lovey dovey in the hotel -- God knows what went on behind closed doors.

What he did was undercut the forces of democracy in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has been punishing elected officials that oppose him, driving them into hiding, beating up opponents, putting them in prison, subverting the constitution -- and by making nice with Chavez, he has -- Obama has empowered the worst guy on the continent.

From the April 20 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom:

KELLY: Well, President Obama is raising some eyebrows with his chummy exchanges with Hugo Chavez at a recent Summit of the Americas. Is this just harmless diplomacy, or did the president look weak here?

From the April 20 edition of Fox News' The Live Desk with Martha and Trace:

MacCALLUM: Let's talk a little bit about the weekend, because there was a lot of attention given to the summit and the handshake that went back and forth with President Obama and Hugo Chavez. At one point, the president was asked, you know, "You spent -- how much time did you spend with other leaders?" We saw a number of handshakes and very sort of high media attention to this Chavez interchange.

And here is what President Obama said about that. He said: "I had very cordial conversations with President Morales and President Correa. And I think it's just that President Chavez is better at positioning the cameras," which we all know he's, you know, many things, and among them, a big ham, Brad Blakeman, right?

BLAKEMAN: Absolutely. This guy is famous for taking over the summits. But I wish that President Obama would have acted more like the king of Spain in 2007 when he told Chavez to shut up and put him in his place, than play into his hand by grandstanding with this guy, accepting his book, shaking his hands several times before the cameras, and really Chavez hijacked the entire summit.

Whatever good came out of it, the only thing we understand from this summit is him cozying up to a dictator.

MacCALLUM: Yeah. Ray Walser, let me ask you about this, because, when I look at it, I say, it's one of two things: you know, either, a mistake was made in the amount of time that was spent with Hugo Chavez or President Obama has made a deliberate decision to do things differently. He wants these pictures out there, wanted to be seen shaking his hand. Which do you think it is?

RAY WALSER (Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst): Well, I think -- and this -- I don't often defend the president -- but I think, in this case, Chavez, for example in the meeting where he hands over the book, gets up, walks to the president, who is sitting down, trying to engage in a joint meeting, and thrusts the book in his hands. I mean, he really does.

He's kind of got the paparazzi approach. The other one, the photo that shows them shaking hands, with the foreign minister in the background, obviously I think was released by the Chavez people. They were stalking the president --

MacCALLUM: But, Ray, let me ask you this --

WALSER: -- and grabbed every --

MacCALLUM: -- because, you know, we have seen handshakes between President Bush and Chavez in the past, but there seemed to be, you know, a little more contact. And as you pointed out, Chavez got up, walked around the table, but isn't this the kind of thing that the president's handlers are supposed to make sure doesn't happen? Don't they, you know, sort of try to do an end-run on this stuff and make sure that this doesn't happen?

WALSER: Well, I'm sure that they tried to, but when you get Chavez in a room there, he seems to be uncontrollable. He's the Energizer bunny. I mean, the bad thing is, it does send a very bad message. And I agree with my colleague there, that, yeah -- I mean, here's the guy who has just recently embraced Ahmadinejad --

MacCALLUM: Right.

WALSER: -- who invites al-Bashir -- al-Bashir of Sudan to come to Venezuela. It's not the good sort of thing that the president wants. And he tried to back away from it --

MacCALLUM: Yeah.

WALSER: -- in his press conference, but, yeah, it's not -- it doesn't send the proper image. That's not the tone of the relationship at this point.

MacCALLUM: Let's put up a couple quotes, 'cause we want to remind people about Hugo Chavez. And I want to show you some of the quotes, and you can take a look at them at home while we talk about this.

Kirsten, you know, what's your take? Clearly, President Obama -- and there's a lot of new talk about the Obama doctrine. He's going all around the world, you know, shaking hands with people, in some cases apologizing for U.S. behavior. Is this clearly the strategy that we're watching unfold? And what do you think -- what's the end?

POWERS: Well, I think it's the --

MacCALLUM: You know, where is it headed?

POWERS: I think it's the strategy he discussed in -- during the campaign, which is that he believes essentially you catch more flies with honey, and he takes a very humble approach. It's very different than -- I think conservatives like to see this more machismo thing. And that's just not Obama.

Obama -- I mean, I like it. You know, and I think he just thinks what we've been doing in the past really doesn't work, it doesn't change their behavior. You can ignore Chavez for all you want, and what does it get you? I mean, he just continues to do exactly what he's going to do, so, let's just try something different.

MacCALLUM: Yeah. You know, Brad Blakeman, there's a quote from President Obama -- and I'm going to paraphrase -- but, basically, he says, you know, this election was a referendum on the idea that to talk is a weakness. And that is clearly -- this is his foreign policy. We're getting a very good handle on it, now, I think, after these two trips. What do you think?

BLAKEMAN: Well, look, there's ways of talking to other countries. You can ramp it up, to have absolutely unconditional talks, which apparently the president's in favor of, or you can have low-level talks and build through the State Department, to the secretary of state, through Cabinet ministers, and eventually get to the vice president, the president himself.

But you don't do it unilaterally and without concession. This president has a modus operandi of apology and concession. And that is not what builds respect for our country around the world.

MacCALLUM: All right.

BLAKEMAN: If anything, it shows weakness.

MacCALLUM: We're going to talk about this Obama doctrine a little bit more with Bill Kristol in just a few minutes. Ray Walser, thank you. Brad Blakeman, Kirsten Powers, thank you very much for being with us today.

* Media Matters searched Fox News transcripts in the Nexis database -- which includes evening shows only -- for "Bush and Uzbekistan" and "Bush and Karimov" from 1/01/2002 to 12/31/2002.

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