Obama is turning Sunnylands estate into Camp David West
By CHRISTI PARSONS | Tribune Washington Bureau | Published: February 14, 2014
WASHINGTON — They’ll meet at a discreet compound in Southern California on Friday, dining with a view of the mountains before a long talk and, if the mood strikes, a walk around the grounds in the balmy night.
It’s hardly a storybook Valentine’s Day, with President Barack Obama as the host and Jordanian King Abdullah II the guest at Rancho Mirage’s luxurious Sunnylands estate, which is becoming the Camp David of the West.
But the setting holds a special allure for world leaders looking to work out nettlesome problems, far from the media glare and diplomatic protocols that come with an official visit to the White House.
Ties are optional, as are elaborately orchestrated meetings. Aides say that’s exactly why Obama ordered up the tete-a-tete on the other side of the continent from the nation’s capital, even though Abdullah was in Washington earlier in the week.
Then there’s the golf course, where the president is free to play golf after his work with Abdullah is done.
The serene setting is ideal for serious discussions, said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
“It’s a more intimate atmosphere,” Phillips said, “and serves as kind of a quiet tribute to the importance accorded to U.S.-Jordanian relations and to one of our more important allies.”
With a good friend or not, Obama sometimes favors a getaway strategy when entertaining heads of state. He took then-President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia to Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., a few summers ago. British Prime Minister David Cameron got courtside seats for a “First Four” matchup in the March Madness college basketball tournament.
And when it was time to talk about the touchy topic of cybersecurity with Chinese President Xi Jinping last year, Obama set up a two-day session at Sunnylands, a 200-acre haven carved out of the desert in the 1960s by publisher Walter Annenberg.
The two went for a stroll in their shirt-sleeves, eventually settling on a new bench crafted from California redwood that the White House had placed there in honor of the Chinese people. Aides think the two leaders laid important groundwork in their cloistered one-on-one.
There’s a feeling of “serenity, isolation, vastness of nature” amid the lush green lawns stretching into the desert, as Wallis Annenberg, president of the Annenberg Foundation, once put it.
Isolation may be part of the attraction for Abdullah. Jordan is quietly supporting some opposition factions in Syria but might suffer retribution if seen as a base for U.S. intervention in that country’s civil war.
Obama and Abdullah have other crucial issues to confront, especially the overwhelming flood of refugees fleeing the violence and pouring across the border into Jordan. Jordan is seeking more assistance for the effort.
The leaders are also likely to discuss the proposed U.S. framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Palestinian diaspora accounts for about half the population of Jordan.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the U.S. and Jordan have strong military, intelligence and diplomatic relationships.
“Jordan is in between a whole bunch of places we care about,” he said. “So if there’s a domino in the Middle East, many people calculate that that domino is Jordan. We have to keep it from falling the wrong way.”
Alterman also suggested that Obama might benefit from a little unstructured time with Abdullah. “This king, with his love of Harley-Davidsons and ‘Star Wars,’ is a person that the president could both learn from and relax with,” he said.
For decades, presidents and former presidents have traveled to Sunnylands to get away from it all. The rules of the estate’s trust hold that the master bedroom be reserved for the president of the United States or other heads of state.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower liked to golf at Sunnylands and, after resigning, President Richard M. Nixon holed up for a time behind its stucco walls.
Foreign leaders have been guests as well, as when President H.W. George Bush hosted the Japanese prime minister.
But Obama is turning the sprawling retreat into a virtual diplomatic center. After the Xi summit last year, Obama told aides that he thought he’d gotten a better sense of the Chinese president than he would have at the White House.
His sunny perception of things may have stemmed, at least a bit, from the temperate climate. When the president arrives Friday night, the temperature is predicted to be in the 70s. (At Camp David, it could be in the 20s.) Then there’s the matter of the golf course, built in a parkland style and featuring a magnolia tree on the seventh green. (Camp David has a driving range and a single green.)
First lady Michelle Obama and the first daughters have other plans for the weekend, potentially allowing the president something he doesn’t get much of in Washington — downtime with some of his golf buddies.