He rarely comes here himself. But President Barack Obama chose to meet Thursday with representatives from the Mideast at Camp David, a place where presidents come to relax and sometimes get their peers to do business in the tranquil setting.
Obama and representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – spent the day here discussing a series of issues, including fighting the Islamic State, the deteriorating situations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the deal struck to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
“This is such an opportunity to be in a relaxed environment when talking over tense topics,” said Anita McBride, who worked in the last three Republican White Houses and is a fellow at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “It’s like inviting someone to your home. It’s an extension of friendship. It’s not like an Oval Office meeting, which can be a lot more structured.”
Known formally as the Naval Support Facility Thurmont, Camp David is in wooded hills about 60 miles northwest of the nation’s capital. It’s a military installation in Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland staffed primarily by the Navy and Marine Corps.
Then known as Hi-Catoctin, the camp was built for federal employees in the 1930s.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt converted it to a presidential retreat in the 1940s, renamed it Shangri-La and modeled the main lodge after his family’s winter vacation home in Warm Springs, Ga.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower later renamed what had become the president’s country residence in honor of his grandson, David.
The sprawling, secluded residence now includes several small cabins as well access to horseback riding, hiking and swimming. There’s a heated pool, a full gym, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a tennis court, riding trails and a skeet-shooting range. In 1992, Camp David hosted its first wedding, when President George H.W. Bush’s daughter Dorothy married Bobby Koch.
Throughout the years, presidents have invited a series of dignitaries here, from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Indonesian President Suharto to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
President Jimmy Carter held peace talks here in 1978 between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, producing what would later be called the Camp David Accords.
American presidents have long enjoyed Camp David as a vacation home where they can enjoy the outdoors. But not the current president, who generally opts for a golf course when he’s taking a break.
This is Obama’s 37th visit to Camp David, according to CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who maintains an authoritative record of presidential activities.
By contrast, George W. Bush had made 122 visits at this same stage of his presidency, totaling 149 by the end of his second term.
Bill Clinton, in his eight years, made 54 visits. Ronald Reagan made 86 visits. Eisenhower made 43 visits in eight years.
Obama has twice hosted foreign leaders – Chinese President Xi Jinping and Jordan’s King Abdullah II last year – at Sunnylands, a tony retreat in the California desert near Palm Springs that’s equipped with an 18-hole golf course. The estate of the late publisher and diplomat Walter Annenberg has been dubbed “Camp David West.”
Obama did choose Camp David to host a meeting of the G-8, the top eight industrialized nations, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and four African heads of state in 2012. In March, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani here, but Obama didn’t attend.
Thursday’s meeting was billed as a summit – a meeting of top leaders – though only two of the six Persian Gulf counties sent their leaders, Qatar and Kuwait. Obama welcomed them to the White House for a dinner of lemon-scented local lamb and pistachio brittle Wednesday night.