Bait & Switch

Bait & Switch

Hucksters in the White House

The bait-and-switch scam is universally known among retailers. The huckster advertises an attractive item-an appliance, aluminum siding, a new kitchen-at an astonishingly low price. That’s the bait, and consumers predictably rise to it.

Then, once the seller has engaged the would-be buyer, the story changes. The advertised item isn’t really available after all. It’s out of stock; or it’s not the appropriate model; or it’s really unreliable, used merchandise. But the seller just happens to have something else available that would do the trick-for about twice the price of the original “bait.” Many a customer, his or her consumer juices now flowing, can’t resist the huckster’s blandishments and ends up springing for the higher-priced item. That’s the switch.

For the scam to work, mere presentation of the switch does not suffice. The huckster has to have his speech prepared to disarm the customer’s inevitable misgivings. After all, what the buyer originally had in mind was rather different-and a lot less expensive. Not to worry, the story goes. In a few months or a year, you won’t remember the money you’ve lost. Indeed, once you experience the outstanding advantages of the option you ultimately had the good sense to choose, you’ll agree that this new deal is really much better for you. No doubt some of the perpetrators actually believe their own words at this point.

Bait and switch is outlawed in many states as a selling practice. But it flourishes at the highest levels of American statecraft. The selling of the Iraq campaign is simply the most outrageous recent example. Grave as that exercise in deception and self-deception was in itself, the broad pattern of such events worries me even more deeply.

The case of Iraq is by now well documented. We know that elimination of Saddam Hussein was the aim of key figures in the current administration from Day 1. September 11 created the ingredients in American public opinion that could be exploited to that end-the fear, the suspicion, the willingness to believe in far-reaching conspiracies abroad that would have deadly consequences at home. Of course, considerable obstacles remained. Most Americans found it difficult to support an aggressive military campaign abroad, unless it were aimed against compelling danger to this country’s safety. Hence, the indispensability of the weapons of mass destruction hype. The recent orgy of Monday-morning quarterbacking has revealed ample evidence for skepticism of danger from such weapons during the run-up to the war. But the regime in Washington focused attention on those misleading scraps of evidence that looked ominous-and twisted them into a crescendo of propaganda culminating in George W. Bush’s winning appeal, “Don’t tie my hands.” Nobody did, of course, especially not the press or our elected representatives. P...