Munson, a U.S. Marine officer with broad experience in the Middle East, synthesizes a narrative of the war in Iraq with explanations of the social, cultural, and political roots of the postwar conflict. He states, "The intent of this book is to describe how the legacies of Saddam Hussein's rule and the longer sweep of history in Iraq produced the conditions that fueled insurgency, sectarian warfare, and intra-sectarian political maneuvering and violence." Munson is careful not to argue that events were predestined although he does argue that had U.S. policymakers been more aware, they could have mitigated the crisis.
Munson understands historiography and integrates historical background into the narrative. He includes canonical studies of Iraq and also draws upon more recent works. However, he borrows too much from these headline-grabbing but often flawed works, rather than fact-checking from scratch and, thus, sometimes repeats their errors. Hence, he labels Douglas Feith head of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans when he was in fact undersecretary of defense for policy. Likewise, he exaggerates the role assigned to Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi by the Pentagon while at the same time misstating basic biographical information, seemingly unaware that Chalabi had returned to Iraq—the Kurdish part at least—in 1991 and not, as Munson writes, in 2003.
Unlike many instant Iraq experts, Munson recognizes that power among tribal, religious, and other groups was not constant over time though he does not delve deeply enough into its ebb and flow. Saddam balanced the army, the party, tribes, and clergy, empowering some to diminish the role of others. By addressing tribalism in isolation, Munson misses the broader context. And while he castigates officials for not understanding the complexity of Iraq, he seems to repeat their error in his discussion of religiosity in the prewar period by remaining too focused on Sunni Islam. When and how, Munson might have asked, did the Shi'i rank-and-file become so adamantly religious in a society that once leaned toward moderation?
Munson concludes by questioning the wisdom of a policy emphasizing democracy. While there are valid arguments to suggest democracy is not compatible with Iraq's governance, Munson does not make them. He cites false analogies to the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan and also to U.S. support for South Vietnam's government, but curiously, he skips over any discussion of South Korea where the analogy to Iraq is perhaps truest. Likewise, while it is easy to criticize democracy, Munson does not suggest an alternative. After all, was it not decades of dictatorship in Iraq that led to sectarian conflict and state failure in the first place?
Despite its foibles, Iraq in Transition is one of the better post-Iraq war overviews, a well-written summary of developments after coalition forces occupied Baghdad. While the authors of the first versions of the history of this period were sweeping in their judgments, Munson is more nuanced and has a better grasp of government and military decision-making.