Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?
In another life, Mecham might have been a young CIA station chief. At 39, he’s hyperanalytical, pentalingual, and a weekend poet. His self-effacement is real and charming, his easy wit disarming. Slight and smooth of face, he could be mistaken for one of the eager first-years who fight a cultlike following of upperclassmen for a seat in his lectures.
In this life, he grew up in Logan, Utah, on the edge of Wasatch Range, where his father was a professor in the Utah State University business school. Mecham was the oldest of five, with all the accompanying precocity. “Actually, that’s the way I got into Arabic,” he explained. “My high school Spanish teacher was so bad. It felt like he was running a piñata sweatshop.” When Mecham asked Señor Oswald for more work, “he said, ‘Sure, I’ll give you extra tests. Here’s a list of 300 automotive terms.’” Mecham petitioned to take college classes, and Arabic was one of two languages taught during his available afternoons. “A mediocre class, but I completely fell in love with the language.”
Painfully advanced for his age, he felt trapped in an insular college town. “I spent most of my time growing up figuring out how to get out. I needed some adventure. I was reading travel guides for fun, and I remember reading that the entire Creature Cantina scene in Star Wars was filmed in this underground cave system in Tunisia. And I just decided, ‘I’ve got to go there.’” He found a scholarship through the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations—“I guess there weren’t a lot of Utahans applying for that sort of thing”—and, at 18, he deplaned in Tunis, armed with a high school education and year’s worth of Arabic.
In 1982, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had been driven from Beirut by the invading Israeli army and had gone into hiding in Tunisia. Nearly a decade later, Arafat still hadn’t left. “The U.S. government wasn’t talking to him,” Mecham explained. “He was a persona non grata, a terrorist.”
While in Tunis, Mecham hooked up with a band of Peace Corps volunteers, who tagged along for “this really late-night, surprise meeting at the PLO headquarters,” orchestrated by the Council. When the call came, Arafat’s men drove in circles through the city before dropping the Americans off and shepherding them into a conference room. “All of a sudden these folding doors parted, and he was sitting there, surrounded by his body guards and translators, in all his hairy glory,” Mecham recalled. “He appeared to be very generous because when offered tea, instead of taking it, he offered it to someone in our group. I actually think it was because he didn’t want to get poisoned. People were trying to assassinate him all the time.” Arafat launched into a series of diatribes against U.S. policy and then took questions. “It was a pretty defining experience for me. He’s the only political celebrity whose autograph I have.”
That autumn, after Mecham left the Maghreb, he enrolled at Brigham Young University, signed up for French and Arabic, and began figuring out how to get back to his studies. At BYU, comparative literature won out over political science. “I remember reading one article by Robert Kaplan, ‘The Coming Anarchy’”(an early nineties Atlantic Monthly piece predicting failed states and bloody resource wars) “in an intro poli-sci class and deciding that the world was coming to an end, and I didn’t have the stomach for it. ‘This is just too painful for me. I’m going to focus on literature.’”
Mecham’s undergraduate track was an obstacle course of distractions. After two years, he left for Nova Scotia on mission, a service-oriented tenet of the Mormon faith in which he was raised and still keeps. “I spent a lot of time working with refugees who were coming from the Soviet Union, which was just falling. I remember playing chess with the Bulgarian national chess champion.” But, mission did little to sate his wanderlust, and he left again, this time on a scholarship to Kuwait University.
The first Gulf War had been over for a year and a half, yet there were still Iraqi tank treads in the volleyball court; Mecham’s dorm room had been a barrack for the occupying troops. “I had terrible teachers, but it was a grand adventure,” he said. “Kuwait isn’t that big, and I saw every inch of it, except for the parts that had unexploded ordinance.” One of only a few Americans at the university, he made friends with a U.S. contractor, and together they fell in with members of the Kuwaiti royal family.
At a diwaniyya, a potluck of sorts where men gather and shout about politics (to which the American pair arrived bearing hamburgers and chili), one of the Kuwaiti royals unloaded two vans full of freshly killed sheep. The event was being held on a luxury yacht, and the massive spread covered the floor of the yacht’s garage. “A little food fight developed,” remembered Mecham. “They could tell that I was shy about eating the sheep’s eyeballs, which are a delicacy, and soon they were tossing the heads around. And then things got a little looser. Guys started taking their shirts off and wrestling each other, and one guy climbed up to the top of the yacht, half-naked, and started yodeling. Someone pulled a Mercedes in and cranked open the doors and turned on the stereo. I remember saying to myself, ‘Do you really want me to see all this?’”
Mecham did eventually graduate from BYU, “with probably 80 percent more credits than I needed,” but not before studying abroad twice more, in Quebec City and Cairo, taking an extra year to write a thesis, and trading marriage vows with Maren Younce. (Maren is a photographer, and their family has grown to include two lively, younger boys and two doting older sisters. “We’re entering the Golden Age of family life. When we go hike the Trail Around Middlebury, we’re a force of nature.”)
He enrolled in Stanford’s political science graduate program, where years of comparative-literary theory pushed him toward comparative politics, and he added Turkish to his linguistic arsenal at Harvard. Trying hard to graduate without debt, he decided to work until he had the money for more classes; several times, he left Palo Alto for Washington, including stints at McKinsey, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
So, years later, while on sabbatical from Middlebury, Mecham was returning to a familiar world of foreign policy when he arrived at the Truman Building as a Franklin Fellow in the State Department’s policy planning office in summer 2009. Inside State, he found that country “desks” were tasked with putting out diplomatic fires and managing the crisis du jour, while policy planning was more forward looking and strategic—an internal think tank providing highway maps to a foreign policy apparatus that’s often fixated on avoiding the next cliff.
And for a few weeks in early 2010, the Yemen desk—then a one-man operation that also covered Oman—seemed headed for such a cliff, following the near downing of an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day. A new terrorist emerged into public consciousness: Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Muslim cleric, accused of abetting al-Qaeda’s Detroit attack, now hiding in the Yemeni mountains, hunted by CIA drones. In April, a debate erupted in Washington over whether assassinating American citizens abroad was a good idea, or even a legal one.
When I visited Mecham at the State Department in May, news stories about Awlaki were no longer appearing above the A1 fold. Midterm politicking had begun in earnest, and Yemen was once more a forgotten corner of the Gulf, a swath of desert with an occasional pirate problem. But just days before the anniversary of 9/11, the CIA leaked what Near East analysts in Washington had long suspected: that Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was now a more immediate risk to American national security than its Pakistan-based parent group. This threat assessment was given real weight when, in late October, the group shipped two mail bombs from Sana’a, Yemen, to Chicago, a plot the group dubbed “Operation Hemorrhage” and staged for just a few thousand dollars. Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief alerted U.S. officials just before the boxes reached American airspace. Overnight, it seemed, the Obama administration was scrambling to promise military aid to Yemen, and Sana’a faced a deluge of automatic weapons, helicopters, and U.S. Special Forces. “If we’re going to do this, we need to do it right, not dribble aid in and wonder why, if things worsen,” a senior defense official told the New York Times. “It’s like a forest fire. You fight to put it out, not watch it.”