WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will launch a new round of Middle East diplomacy Friday in a plush oasis in the arid California desert, hosting a Valentine’s Day summit with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Obama and the king will swap the piles of snow in Washington for the Sunnylands retreat at the Annenberg estate in Palm Springs, to discuss issues including the pitiful torrent of refugees pouring into Jordan from Syria.
The meeting will be the first of a trio of meetings between Obama and key Middle East leaders in the coming weeks.
On March 3, the US president will sit down at the White House for his latest encounter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made no secret of his skepticism over an interim deal that Washington and other world powers reached with Iran on its nuclear program.
Then at the end of March, he will travel to Saudi Arabia, for what is likely to be a sharp personal reminder that Saudi King Abdullah shares Netanyahu’s doubts about Obama’s strategy of testing the sincerity of an Iranian diplomatic opening.
Obama and his royal guest will sit down in California just two days after the US president admitted that Syria was “crumbling,” while his Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the civil war-splintered country as an “apocalyptic disaster.”
Jordan has borne the brunt of much of the humanitarian overflow — nearly 600,000 Syrian refugees have now crossed its borders, straining its infrastructure and finances.
Obama has all but admitted that his policy is failing in the expressed US aim of sparking a political transition in Syria leading to the exit of President Bashar al-Assad.
But he frequently notes that the United States is the largest aid donor to Syrian refugees. Washington has so far donated $1.7 billion to the cause, according to the US Agency for International Development.
But there are no signs that the Obama administration believes that a new US policy — or a change in its reluctance to either to do more to arm opposition rebels or to commit direct US military resources — would bring an end to the crisis any closer.
Obama will also discuss US efforts to broker a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians with the Jordanian monarch, who strongly backs US efforts.
The president’s decision to travel to California to meet King Abdullah has meant some uncomfortable moments on the hotseat for his aides.
Reporters have darkly suggested that the president is using the meeting as an excuse to hunker down at the balmy resort — which boasts a highly regarded golf course — for the long President’s Day weekend.
Abdullah has been in Washington for several days — so could easily have met Obama already — following his talks with Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other officials.
The White House points out that before heading to the summit, Obama will tour efforts to mitigate a historic drought in Californian farmlands.
“The king is also going to go out to California. The president and the king can meet there and will meet there as part of this trip,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in evasive comments that hardly tamped down speculation about Obama’s motives.
US presidents have often met foreign leaders outside Washington — George W. Bush, for instance, often entertained dignitaries at his ranch in Texas.
Obama, who does not own a vacation property, often comes under political fire from Republican foes over his choice of vacation spot — especially when it facilitates his love of golf.
Obama may welcome some informal time with Abdullah in a relaxed setting.
The two men have been friendly ever since the king drove then senator Obama to the airport in a silver Mercedes after dinner at one of his palaces in Amman a few months before the 2008 election.
But since then, they have mainly met in formal settings.
While Obama enjoys his stag weekend, his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha reportedly have their own mini-break planned elsewhere.
Presidents, including Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush have loved the links at Sunnylands since the 1960s.
The course is a nine-hole layout, but two sets of tees allow for a varied 18-hole round to a par of 72.
Obama will be making his second visit to the resort as president. Last year, he held an informal shirt-sleeves summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and stayed on for a few rounds of golf.