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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was recently hospitalized for prostate cancer surgery and apparently incommunicado for a few days in early January. Although Austin never lost consciousness or went under general anesthesia, some members of Congress and media commentators have described the situation as reckless and irresponsible and one of great peril for the United States. These critics contend that, by failing to inform the president or the White House staff in good time, Austin left open the possibility of disruption of the civilian and military chains of command by ambiguous delegation of authority during his absence.
Much of that criticism is misplaced, some of it motivated by partisan discontent with the Biden administration's national security policy, while some commentators are simply misinformed. There are at least two reasons these criticisms are simply wrong, and a few reasons the critics are misguided in their complaints.
First, the military chain of command runs from the president, to the secretary of defense, to the combatant commanders who are in charge of the unified or specified warfighting commands for the armed forces. The president is the commander in chief of the armed…